Undertow (2004)
Southern Gothic
11 June 2009
A Southern Gothic fairytale directed by David Gordon Green and shot by his regular DP Tim Orr and scored by Phillip Glass with a cast of superb actors young and old. Doesn't that sound too good to be true? The critical consensus when the film was originally released, bar raves from Jonathan Rosenbaum and Roger Ebert and positive notices from other reputable sources such as the New York Times, Village Voice, AV Club, and Chicago Tribune, seemed to suggest, basically, that it was. Lots of talk about David Gordon Green and Southern Gothic being a clumsy fit (totally ludicrous suggestion), there being no real movie beneath the allusions and style (banal critic-speak), and more banal critic-speak dismissing the film as a derivative mess.

I suppose my opinion is no more valid than that of those who dismissed the film, but "Undertow" strikes me, with five viewings of it under my belt, as David Gordon Green's best and most interesting film. The characters are well-developed within the ideals and ideas of the story and film. My fiancée's biggest problem with the film was the characterization of the villain played by Josh Lucas. He shows up snarling and menacing and remains so for the movie, given clear motivation but hardly 'well-developed'. However, the movie seems to be perfectly content with following the traditional style of the Southern Gothic story, the chase movie, and the fairytale. This villain might not be the best-developed in film history, but he works within the story.

The screenwriters, director David Gordon Green and co-writer Joe Conway (an English teacher apparently, you can tell just by watching the movie), write their characters to fit within a certain ideal, and as such one could argue that most of the characters in "Undertow" are mythic figures more than characters, with the focus being largely on the two brothers at the core of the story, played by the immensely talented young actors Jamie Bell and Devon Alan.

The film's predictability appears to be an issue for many but I like how earnest Gordon Green and his cast and crew are in telling this story. I like that there's no cheap hipster irony. The reason it's predictable is that it's been done a thousand times before, but clearly nobody involved thinks there was a problem with doing it again. Where I disagree with several critics and IMDb reviewers is on the idea that "Undertow" doesn't distinguish itself from those which came before. I disagree. All a film needs to distinguish itself is quality, and "Undertow" has plenty of that. It's remarkably well-written, outside some narrative confusion, and Tim Orr's gloomy Southern Gothic imagery match perfectly with what is easily Phillip Glass' most underrated score, and one of his very best overall, creating a stark, beautiful atmosphere. David Gordon Green again focuses more on ambiance and character, but also seems more interested here than in his earlier films in telling a single story, but does so with a decisive preference for story over 'plot'.

Perhaps the victim of unfair and incorrect expectations, "Undertow" seems to have at least held on to a relatively high reputation, and hopefully will be remembered in the future for the masterpiece it is. Looked at for what it is, a fanciful tale of the bond between two brothers and their journey together, including numerous episodic encounters along the way (again the fairytale aspect comes into play) and not really the gritty chase film some critics seem to have mistaken it for, "Undertow" is a unique triumph. A tour-de-force from a director below the age of 30 blessed with class and sophistication and intelligence and a cinematographer and composer and cast who seemed destined to make this film.
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