A homeless girl stands on the edge of a river. She’s probably a drug addict and almost certainly a prostitute. She writes her wish on a piece of paper and slips it into an empty bottle. After tossing the bottle into the river she tells the boy next to her that if it reaches the ocean, her wish will come true. The only way her wish can be stopped, she says, is if the bottle is pulled down.
“Undertow” is an unabashed Southern Gothic, that is, a melodrama that combines gritty rural realism with fairy tale plotting. Despite being set in the 1970s, we still think of Faulkner when we meet a family that seems no less than cursed. The man and his two sons toil day after day in a vast, dilapidated farm house, under the weird and watchful eyes of the dead wife in a painting, while rumors of stolen gold float around. Lonely men smoke packs and packs of cigarettes not for pleasure but “to help them forget.” Two grown brothers (Josh Lucas and Dermot Mulroney) are still uneasy about a wound from long ago. Two young brothers (Jamie Bell and Devon Allen) are on the run from an ex-convict uncle through impossibly green woods. Both pairs of siblings seem doomed by poverty and fate to repeat history; the boys are set to re-enact the lives of their elders. In describing where the gold came from, the father of the young boys unwittingly outlines their lot: they wait for centuries empty-handed on the edge of the Styx. When we watch a boy throw a rock through a girl’s window and flee barefoot from her shotgun-wielding father, we know the gods destined this family for tragedy long ago.
Yet “Undertow” does not feel like a melodrama, because director and co-screenwriter David Gordon Green (“George Washington,” “All the Real Girls”) is in love with dilapidation. He never lets the fairy tale overpower the grit. He is in love with junkyards and rusty fishing boats and corrugated metal and creaky old houses that could use a good rummage sale. All his settings are run-down and feel genuinely lived-in, as if the battered walls contain generations of secrets instead of the slightest resale value. Green shows us pig farming at its most muddy, he shows us a naked family too poor to bathe anywhere besides a well, he shows us churches that need to be painted. We see greasy hair and cars that won’t start and cracked mirrors under years of dust.
There is a long sequence in which the elder of the two boys (Jamie Bell) on the run keeps trying to get a job and keeps getting rejected, while the alternately diabolical and bumbling uncle is two steps behind. The episodes pile on and we wonder if there are too many of them—so many stores built of rotting wood, so many dusty dirt roads, so many greasy faces, so many colloquialisms from one-scene cameos—until we realize that “Undertow” is Green’s ambivalent ode to poverty. All his movies have been set in economically depressed areas, yet he regards those places and those people as no better or worse than their wealthier (and always unseen) neighbors. He sees dignity in all people and beauty in all places, and he avoids the temptation of Dickens and Horatio Alger to show poverty as being worthwhile only if you end the book rich again. Green has no Romantic, Byronic illusions of the poor being superhuman examples for the rest of us; they are human to him, some good and some bad, but all limited by resources and education.
Green further keeps the melodrama in check not just by setting “Undertow” in the 1970s but by making it his tribute to the American cinema-verité of the time. The movie has the rambling, almost-documentary feel of “Badlands,” “Deliverance,” “Easy Rider,” or “The Rain People,” helped in no small part by cinematographer Tim Orr’s heavily orange-and-green textures. Several freeze frames look like faded photographs, or some forgotten ‘70s flick, in need of digital remastering, that you might catch on Saturday afternoon TV. Add to this Green’s already obtuse storytelling style—he’s much more interested in soaking us with dreamy, memory-style images than hammering home some kind of plot—and the fairy tale might go right past you.
(Green’s ear for flaky, shooting-the-breeze dialogue is still hard at work, although not as ferocious as in “All the Real Girls.” When the younger brother asks “was mom pretty?” don’t expect the typical movie response of “mom was like an angel.”)
British actor Jamie Bell, who was the lead in “Billy Elliot” and “Nicholas Nickleby’s” stumbling sidekick Smike, has completely Southern-ized himself for his role as a teenager on the run. Lank, barefoot, in work pants and a tee-shirt, his gangly limbs at right angles as he flees through the woods—he is the picture of the laconic teenager. He seems born with a baseball cap on and understands the mystery of when to wear it low over the eyes or backwards at the end of the day. Bell’s Chris exemplifies the smart kid with limited options; we’re kept guessing about what he thinks and feels, even to the end, even with his brother in tow. “Undertow’s” other stand-out performance is from Dermot Mulroney as the boys’ sad-eyed but resilient widower father. In another life he could have been a philosopher or a monk. Instead, he sits alone with his pipe, his wish pulled down long before ever reaching the sea. (Like so many other good-looking actors whose aspirations to become leading men never quite materialized, Mulroney is quietly proving his chops in films like this and “Lovely and Amazing.”)
I would not be surprised if someone were to say that the journey of the boys is the journey of the New South from dank isolation, caught in repeating generations of lawlessness and mistrust, toward modernity. Some bottles are still afloat, some are not. In everything Green does, he seems fearless about tangents, about symbolism, about telling his stories obtusely, about letting us soak up atmosphere and images. Not everything he does seems quite functional or ready to fit together, but we admire his willingness to cast his net wide.
Finished November 15th, 2004
Copyright © 2004 Friday & Saturday Night
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