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David Gordon Green is the type of director that revels in simplicity. Sounds easy enough, but it is far more complex than that. The complication comes from the manner in which he approaches the simplistic, and that is to treat it as if it were the only thing that truly mattered in the universe. Undertow marks his third film, all of which feature the rural landscapes of the South as their backdrop for tonal explorations of adolescent growth, and the pains associating with expression of feeling.

Everyone has been there. That consuming sense of urgency that extends beyond the means of one’s own flesh, as if the skin would tear wide open if it refused the growth spurts imposed upon it.

Strikingly, with each installment Green seems to raise the ante a bit, and delve deeper into the true horror and beauty that makes up humanity. As with George Washington and All the Real Girls, Green explores the complexities of expression in a beautifully understated wash of mood and ambiance, never crossing the line into the obscure, but dwelling fastidiously in the ebb and flow of the surreal.

This time around, the focus is on two brothers. Chris (Jamie Bell), the rebellious older sibling, provides us with our glimpse into his world. We observe aspects of his life in snippets, sometimes without the details preceding or following specific events. It’s almost as if he is recalling these memories for us to witness firsthand.

It’s said at one point that “sometimes it’s the strange moments that stick,” and this is profound. Green emphasizes this with aptly placed freeze frames throughout the film, framing incidents as they occur and etching them onto the screen as they would in Chris’ mind.

As Chris inches his way deeper into trouble, his younger brother Tim (Devon Allen), seems to be heading for danger in his own way. Frail and bordering malnourishment, Tim refuses to eat the food prepared for meals, but secretly devours mud and paint chips, to the point of making himself physically ill.

The third in the family is paterfamilias John (Dermot Mulroney), a quiet yet stern man who seems at odds with Chris’ rebellious nature, yet fails to see how his affection for Tim seemingly exacerbates the problem. Being older and more physically fit, Chris is handier around the house tending to the pigs and mending the roof while Tim is left to poison himself.

John mourns the loss of his wife, and at one point explains that following her death he decided to uproot the family and move to the middle of nowhere to “live like hermits.” The hint of a secret, some sort of regret from the past, is intertwined with remorse over his loss, and it leads to bigger issues when his own brother Deel (Josh Lucas) arrives on parole from prison.

With his arrival, Deel opens up old wounds and also peaks the interests of Chris, who seems keyed into the skeletons in his father’s closet surrounding a collection of priceless Mexican gold coins. The dynamic between both sets of siblings are intended to compliment one another, yet Green has woven a thread of morality into the film early on which underlines the developments between all involved.

This “message” is far more subtle and in line with Green’s intentions than merely inflicting yet another life lesson on his audience. In the opening sequences of Undertow, Chris’ feelings for a young woman he fancies gets him into trouble and he ends up skewering his foot on a board with an errant nail. This is naturally cringe-inducing, but the ingredients used in this sequence resonate in small ripples throughout the rest of Chris’ arc. His tenacity to stand firm is depicted in the manner in which he walks away with the board still attached to his foot.

Chris’ disruption of Tim’s birthday party is something he defends when his father calls him on his actions. He protests John’s favoring of Tim, and spews hurtful truths that are both intended and typical of teenagers his age, yet the scenes never succumb to melodrama.

What comes of these sequences is told through actions, but not as one might expect. After the police return the board in question to Chris, he decides to make use of the wood itself by fashioning a wooden airplane to give to Tim for his birthday. The gift is both redemption and apology incarnate, and illustrates his feelings for his sibling despite the disdain he may feel about his own treatment in the house.

It would be a mistake to delve deeper into what unfolds for Chris and Tim, because the film deserves to be seen, not dictated.

Those willing to take a chance on Undertow will be welcomed by a pastiche of memory, both sullied with dirt and grain, yet beautifully rendered in fondness and affection. Lucas and Mulroney are surprisingly cunning in the film, wrestling with a past that each feels justified in while Bell and Allen manage to steal the show with their sincerity. Included in Green’s many strengths is his ability to coax intelligent and cogent performances from his youthful actors.

Despite the lack of rare gold coins in most families, everyone is sure to have experienced differences of opinion regarding various events within a family history that have either divided or united members together. Green has managed to fuse these tiny dramas together into something larger in scale, affecting all of humanity individually and universally at once.


Mario Anima

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