A codgery voice warns of “violence and bloodshed,” an innocent teenage couple diffidently cuddle, a cute li’l fella explains that he’s organizing his paperback collection “by the way they smell.” It’s summertime in the verdant, baffling realm of Southern regionalist David Gordon Green.
Green goes gothic in Undertow, which brings the earnest aestheticizing mannerisms of George Washington and All the Real Girls to a narrative modeled on The Night of the Hunter. Undertow starts with a bit of Smokey and the Bandit–ism but soon turns darker. John (Dermot Mulroney) lives in the Georgia backwoods with a mess of hogs and his two boys—teenage Chris (Jamie Bell) and tiny Tim (Devon Alan), who sometimes wears a pilgrim hat and compulsively eats mud and paint, explaining that “it’s an anxiety disorder.” The ménage is menaced by the appearance of John’s ex-con brother Deel (Josh Lucas); exacerbated by hidden gold and Philip Glass menace music, sibling rivalry turns murderous. Soon the boys are fleeing for their lives through a timeless landscape of hobo jungles and bayous, conversing in an odd mixture of psychobabble and Appalachian blank verse.
Green has been a polarizing figure ever since his Sundance-rejected George Washington became the sleeper sensation of the 2000 Berlin Film Festival. Is he an authentic talent or a pretentious Terence Malick wannabe? All the Real Girls was borderline insufferable and yet there were moments that had a startling emotional truth. Undertow‘s flopsy-mopsy kids, backwoods kooks, metaphysical babbling, and arch line readings can be tough to stomach. However cloying, the movie creates a powerful vortex. It’s surprisingly visceral—at times almost thrilling.