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Undertow | Review

Coin Tossed

Green adds “convention” to his unconventional style.

For his third feature film, the 70’s inspired filmmaker puts more of an “active” emphasis on what one could call his southernized chaos theory. While his characters remain richly complex and not easily definable, and his use of locations are loyally attached to his Southern wasteland themes, Green’s stylized narrative takes off like a jet- a more feverish pacing and shorter editing delivers a suspenseful life-or-death Bruckheimer ride, – its an admirable effort that displays Green’s masterful talent as an art-house film director, but will most likely leave mainstream audiences bitterly confused.

In a David Gordon Green film, a place like home is the type of setting that is just as likely to enclose a heavy secret as a muddied swamp land, abandoned concrete structures or deep backwoods would. As with his first effort in George Washington, this United Artists’ feature is marked with the type of atmospheric elements that make the most comfortable place, feel uneasy and unsafe. Deep in the woods on a farming house for pigs we enter a world of men, – some overworked, some abandoned and some that could use home-cooked meal with some leafy greens on the side. They make them different out in white-trash back country – they are tougher and some find solace in sticking non-food items down their throats. A staple of Green’s text is that his stories merge a child’s world with the self-destructive adult one. This portrait of youth sees actor Jamie Bell (Billy Elliot) as the stubborn, foot impaled protective brother to younger brother Tim (Devon Alan) whom both act as the eyes and mind that fuels the film narrative. Tweaked with some sharp violence, this becomes a survival story opus which pegs the two young boys against the menacing adult world where the used-to-be incarcerated and naturally evil grinned Uncle (Josh Lucas – Around the Bend ) conducts his own manhunt.

With a Cape Fear overtone, Undertow is an uncomfortable watch, one that dispenses enough climatic chilling scenes and a nuanced psychological terror to merit bringing along a soft childhood blankie to the viewing of the film. Certainly, this is a less thought-provoking piece from his two precedent features, the maniac pursuit mixed with the several poetic-like stances borders more on the absurd than authentic. Green’s most prevalent asset is that has a pulse on an America that is rarely seen, on characters and environments that are rarely explored. This time out he applies the same pulse to the tempo and the look of the film and it is felt from the get-go – the film’s opening sequence commences with a stylized bang – some interesting freeze frames, cinematographer Tim Orr’s overall elliptic look of the terrain and Philip Glass’s naturalistic musical treatment certainly drum up the course of the film to to a different beat.

Undertow is a George Washington in fifth gear – it combines the 70ish spurts of non-narrative moments, fades to black and zoom shots in a text that involves some severe adverse conditions. Green is probably one of the more interesting contemporary directors and has the luck of being mentored by the great Terrence Malick (who produced the film), but while the film retains authentic auteur identity favorable for Indie fans, it struggles to incorporate style with all the substance.

Rating 3.5 stars

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Eric Lavallée is the founder, CEO, editor-in-chief, film journalist and critic at (founded in 2000). Eric is a regular at Sundance, Cannes and TIFF. He has a BFA in Film Studies at the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema. In 2013 he served as a Narrative Competition Jury Member at the SXSW Film Festival. He was an associate producer on Mark Jackson's This Teacher (2018 LA Film Festival, 2018 BFI London). In 2022 he served as a New Flesh Comp for Best First Feature at the 2022 Fantasia Intl. Film Festival. Current top films for 2022 include Tár (Todd Field), All That Breathes (Shaunak Sen), Aftersun (Charlotte Wells).

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