I must have watched the requisite hundred crappy movies since the last gem I found, because this one is an absolute and well-hidden whopper.
|One of David Gordon Green's early films. And despite no lack of interest, the first of his I've actually seen.|
Restless teen Chris (Jamie Bell), his sickly brother Tim (Devon Alan) and their father John (Dermot Mulroney) live on a small pig farm in the rural backwoods of Georgia, where they lead lives of seclusion and hard work. Their estranged uncle Deel (Josh Lucas) shows up one day, apparently looking to mend bridges with his brother. But when Deel's true intentions are revealed, Chris takes his brother on the run to get away from him, and protect a cursed treasure.
This movie is every bit as earthy and natural as a slow-simmering southern drama should be, and at the exact same time, plays out like it belongs alongside Grimm's fairytales. Nothing happens that doesn't makes sense; that couldn't happen in real life without anyone thinking twice; and everything that happens carries with it the otherworldly air of a fable. The perfect amalgamation of these two seemingly unmixable elements is the root of this movie's greatness and subtle genius.
|It's got action too, but if you watch for action only, you might miss the drama that gives it all meaning.|
The buildup of suspense in the first third of the film is immaculate. It does well to take its time. Even though the premise reveals more or less of what will happen, the beginning is used for establishing why we should care about the impending violence. All four characters are developed for us organically, without time-saving inserts of unnatural exposition. We get to see the amnesty between Chris and John play out, and then Deel carefully drive the wedge even further between them, to our increasing worry.
And long before the worry is transferred to Chris, we get to worry about Tim, who has no stomach for eating unless it's something that should never be eaten. Grease, paint, dirt; no one seems to notice that his illness is something he's doing to himself. And the opening sequence tells us practically everything we need to know about Chris. It's like he acts out for the sheer excitement of it, because as soon as he's bailed out of jail, he returns to his chores with diligence. If anything, this story is about him discovering his own goodness.
|Kid Jamie Bell is like a different person from Adult Jamie Bell.|
I'm a fan of Jamie Bell, but I could have fooled myself watching this, because I completely forgot that he's British. He's so southern American here that he was reminding me of the kids in Mud who were born and bred there. He has that quiet charm that's displayed through physicality instead of being limited to dialogue and facial expressions. It's a quality he usually has, but seems especially on display with this role -- enhanced by contrast with a volatile edge that's ideal for this film. We rarely know exactly what Chris is thinking; and we rarely need to in order to understand.
After years of thinking of him as "The Sweet Home Alabama Guy," I was incredibly impressed with Josh Lucas, and how effortlessly he layered deviousness and malice underneath that rom-com charm to make a truly terrifying character -- but even he elicits sympathy every now and then. I didn't even recognize Dermot Mulroney at all. He and Devon Alan both do flawless jobs with their characters; they only aren't as prominent as the other two. A very young Kristen Stewart also shows up, and all the supporting actors feel full, real, and unique as they pass by.
|The girl at the car shop who swallows her gum was my personal favorite.|
At first I didn't like how some shots would freeze while the scene's dialogue continued. At first. And the look of the film was so grimy and run-down, the beauty of it is practically subconscious. But this visual style was intentional, and in the end, as important as anything else. Avoiding specifics, there was one particular moment when this movie rocketed up into that place where quality entertainment suddenly means something powerful and personal. The whole time I felt like I was on the same page as the director, but then he took it all one incredibly important step further, and it got me.
Undertow is a movie for people who are intrigued by story; who watch films to turn their brains on, not off; who don't need every moment and detail to be spelled out in order to understand the meaning it carries for plot and for character. When it came out in 2004 it got zero attention and lots of oblivious criticisms. It was ahead of its time; if released today it would be compared to Mud, and praised on the same level. Both these southern dramas have more at stake, and more hidden in them than immediately meets the eye.
|Comedy and romance is all well and good, but there's nothing like coming-of-age stories with grown-up stakes.|
On the surface, with the dirt and sweat and contention, there are the basics of a cohesive story, complex characters, and acting so simple and good, you forget they're acting. But this is no haphazard family drama that happens to be well-told; but a tale of myth, rich with meaning, crafted as inconspicuously as it was intentionally. A true treasure, waiting patiently to be discovered.