Get local news delivered straight to your phone
Support City Paper!
In his first two features, director David Gordon Green eked a compelling style out of cracked and broken landscapes. George Washington and All the Real Girls were both small, lived-in films that gained resonance as Green revealed the rust and decay that surrounded his North Carolinian characters. His latest, Undertow, is even more steeped in imagery of the desiccated South, but in this go-round, it’s not such a nice place to visit. Green has longtime cinematographer Tim Orr slather everything in an extra coat of brown and carts in so many signifiers of country living that you’ll wish you had brought along a good chigger remedy: whittling, mesh hats, lice, beat-up station wagons, skinned animals, union suits, and town dumps that are bigger than the towns. This land that time forgot is home to John Munn (Dermot Mulroney), who yanked his two sons, Tim (Devon Alan) and Chris (Billy Elliot’s Jamie Bell), out of civilized society when his wife passed away. Sadness, though, isn’t the prevailing way of life here: From the opening scene, in which Chris gruesomely impales his foot on a nail, violent impulses hang in the air, waiting for someone to grab them. That turns out to be John’s mysterious brother, Deel (Sweet Home Alabama’s Josh Lucas), who saunters into the Munns’ creaky, hog-abutted cabin and upsets the rotting apple cart. The burly Lucas, with his permanently puffed chest and hate-dealin’ fists, evokes no one more than Robert Mitchum’s the Rev. Harry Powell from The Night of the Hunter. He gives a convincing, terrifying performance, confirmation that his bearded Wonderland tough was no fluke. Bell, similarly, never misses in his portrayal of the dutiful son who would be a rebel if he could only afford better clothes. But the fact that the plot twists around a contested stash of Mexican gold coins creates some serious tonal dissonance: The story unfolds like a Hardy Boys book hijacked by Jim Thompson. And as in the director’s more lyrical movies, the rural-poverty milieu can sometimes feel a little too exalted—as if one of them big-city folks showed up an’ started artifyin’ everything. Next time, Green should stop himself before the rednecks start chasing each other through the woods to original Philip Glass tunes.—Josh Levin