The young filmmaker David Gordon Green stages scenes in a lyrical and ”open” way that bypasses the collective junk of commercial moviemaking. There’s an upside to that, and a downside as well. In All the Real Girls (2003), his tenderly foreboding tale of first love, Green stretched out the rhythms of conventional drama, letting ebbs of happiness break over floes of doubt and anxiety. The movie was a genuine achievement, yet it was also the work of a self-styled emotional purist — an artist so sensitive that he savors every moment, to the point that you occasionally wished he’d savor it a little less.
Undertow, Green’s new film, opens with a sequence that’s at once visceral and baffling. In the rural South, Chris (Jamie Bell), a sullen teenager with a mean twist to his mouth, throws a rock through the house of the girl he’s been seeing. When her father emerges with a shotgun, he flees, taking refuge at a work shed where he leaps blindly onto a board with a nail jutting out of it. As he continues to run, shocked with pain, the board now affixed to the bottom of his foot, the filmmaker keeps freezing the frame — a stylistic tic that suggests there’s more to what we’re seeing than meets the eye.
Green, it turns out, has made an art film posing as a backwoods gothic thriller. (Or is it the other way around?) The delinquent Chris returns to the tumbledown home he shares with his little brother (Devon Alan), a sickly dreamer who has a secret obsession with sipping paint (hence his chronic intestinal trouble), and the pair’s bedraggled father, John (Dermot Mulroney), a hog farmer and taxidermist who gruffly looks after the two boys.
The setting, and indeed the whole sinister hick-trash vibe of the place, suggests Faulkner by way of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and the floating ominousness is soon upped with the arrival of Deel (Josh Lucas), the boys’ uncle, a grinning ex-con who comes on all friendly but is clearly up to no good.
It would be unfair to reveal much of what happens in Undertow, except to say that Chris, along with his brother, ends up on the run again, this time with the vicious — and avaricious — Deel in pursuit. Green stages their odyssey of escape as if it were a timeless fable, and I wish I could say that his meditative style revealed hidden layers in the material. The truth is that Undertow is like a conventional Hollywood movie operating on half its cylinders. Lucas plays a standard evil redneck with menace but little depth, and Jamie Bell, from Billy Elliot, while convincing as a mostly wordless hillbilly, doesn’t find much interior life in the role. The title of Undertow refers to the deathly tug of events that threatens to suck the characters down from the fragile surface of their lives. By the end, you realize there’s not much beneath that surface.