I just feel that this is a good symbol or like symbolism, or metaphor, for life: the trunk key doesn’t fit in the ignition.
—Barlow Jacobs, production assistant, “Under the Undertow”
A screenplay is just a vague blueprint/outline of a series of events that may or may not happen, or be viewed with any sort of authority or intelligence.
—David Gordon Green, “Under the Undertow”
“A lot of this movie, you don’t know how much of it is true, how much of it is based on fact and how much of it is exaggerated from its origins,” says writer-director David Gordon Green on his excellent DVD commentary track for Undertow. “It kind of came from a young runaway who from the get-go, sounded more like he’d read Treasure Island than what was really going on. It was obviously circled around some horrific tragedy of his life, but it was from the get-go so embellished and exaggerated that I was more interested almost in the tall tale element than the reality.”
“Yeah,” adds young star and co-commentator Jamie Bell. “That sounds right.”
It does sound about right, actually, in that the film is part standard Southern Gothic and part dream, part traditional coming-of-age saga and part wholly original, in rhythms, insights, and images. It’s all about the conflicts and the desires. And it begins with 17-year-old Bell’s character, Chris, kissing his young girlfriend (Elliot’s first on screen kiss, he recalls, the first take interrupted by the loud “huge splash” of a diver falling in the water. They laugh as they remember the mishap, as the girlfriend, Lila (Kristen Stewart), asks Chris, “Can I carve my name in your face?” This particular “sweet nothing” will remind viewers of Green’s other films, George Washington and All the Real Girls, both featuring cryptic, casually violent intimacies, digging into the ways that kids communicate, explore, and learn how to get into one another.
All three of Green’s films have been shot by the brilliant Tim Orr, who brings a slippery, haunting sophistication and grace to all the backwoods and dirt roads in Undertow. Following the kiss, Chris stands outside Lila’s house and tosses a stone through a window, soliciting her father’s shotgun-armed wrath—as he runs through trees and over tin rooftops (and lands on a nail, his own mundane sort of stigmata), Philip Glass’ score rolls beneath him, the action and freeze frames creating what Green calls a “Dukes of Hazzard effect,” made “elegant.”
The film is like that. It tracks the evolving relationships between two sets of brothers—Chris and 10-year-old Tim (Devon Alan), and their widower father John (Dermot Mulroney) and the ex-con Deel (Josh Lucas)—all fraught, all poetic, all strange and evocative. For starters, Tim eats paint. Pale and sickly, another skinny boy living in a movie version of rural Georgia, this time on a perpetually muddy pig farm in Drees County, Georgia, he sits at the dinner table, playing with his food, unable to down the chunk of ham on his plate. According to John, Tim has a “rough stomach.” He vomits repeatedly, especially after he’s eaten some rusty grime off a decrepit appliance he’s found beneath the porch, or stuck his fingers in a can of bright green paint. Slipping that terrible taste into his mouth, he looks pensive and resolute as her swallows, waiting for the inevitable gag, his tiny body reacting against the toxin even his face contorts and even smiles, looking almost ecstatic.
Tim’s habit is strange, but it’s noted only tangentially in Undertow, a symptom of the pain and trouble roiling beneath surfaces. Initially, Tim and Chris’ poverty appears something of a choice on John’s part, as he’s turned his back on “civilized” life following the death of his beloved wife—enshrined in a portrait he looks on each night, a ritual of self-reflection and grief. As Tim’s resistance turns inward (and churns up occasionally), Chris’ takes a more familiar form. Called on to do most of the chores (Tim being too weak and too preoccupied arranging his books “by the way they smell”), Chris is unable to voice his resentment.
Still, he looks after Tim as best he can, his big-brothering informed by his own loss. “Before you know it,” he warns, “the things you say, nobody’s gonna listen. The things you feel. You’re just a kid. Enjoy it while it lasts” Such wisdom emerges, it seems, from Chris’ own experience, growing up too fast and feeling rejected by his own father. Sorry that his adventure has “ruined” Tim’s birthday, Chris is even more frustrated by the limits imposed by his father. The planned “celebration” is yet another dinner for the three of them, alone: “You never let me leave the place,” he complains, envisioning no end to the future of dirt, hogs, and tractor engines stretching before him. “What do you think we’re gonna do?”
Little does he know just how changed his life will be when his father’s brother arrives. Just out of prison, Uncle Deel (Josh Lucas) hauls up in his muscle car, his face grizzled and his pink cowboy shirt weirdly stylish. John and Deel have difficult history, that’s clear from their first jut-jawed greeting. When Deel complains that it took work to find his family out here in the boonies, John suggests they have reason to keep a distance: “The way you blame me for things, don’t say you don’t.” Still, he offers Deel a place to stay, a decision that proves fatal, literally, as Deel seeks payback for those “things,” from so far back in their past. (“My head is psychologically mauled,” says Lucas in his brother’s odd, lovely making-of documentary, “Under the Undertow,” included on the DVD, along with the commentary tracks. And given the heat, the emotional depths, as well as hard-ass stunts and accidents [Bell stepped on an actual nail and ended up on crutches], endured by all, you might wonder if he means Deel or himself.)
This retribution leads to violence, such that the next generation of brothers, Tim and Chris, are tossed into yet another vacuum of fear, guilt, and suspicion. Their unwanted adventure turns into yet another kind of plot, a Southern gothic thriller haunted by The Night of the Hunter, impelled by their uncle’s implacable greed and brutality, and quite a bit more generic than what’s come before. Soon, the boys are on the run (Green jokes with Bell that he hired him because “I knew you could haul ass”).
Even in this turn, though, Green and Orr don’t abandon their luminous aesthetic sensibility. The film is as exquisite, haunting, and provocative as anything they’ve made. Even when its plot is most regular, Undertow remains offbeat and moody. (When Deel comes sneaking up on one of their hiding places, Bell observes this quirky rhythm: “Here, it’s about to kick off again, isn’t it? It’s really got a life of its own.”) Hiding in the woods and stumbling along dirt roads, the boys take refuge with a well-meaning, deeply loving black couple (Eddie Rouse, whom Green casts in all his films, and Patrice Johnson, whose reading of the line, “We had us a little one for a while, a little baby boy. But he wouldn’t take my milk. I tried and tried, but my breasts were strangers to him,” is simultaneously heartbreaking and startling).
Resting briefly, the brothers hardly stop worrying, and are soon moving again, as Chris seeks work at a shipyard and Tim becomes weaker and weaker. Eventually, they come on a group of homeless kids, including the distractingly cute Violet (Shiri Appleby). But even as Chris seems nearly like any other adolescent boy in her presence (flirty, aggressive, awed), he also keeps his eye on Tim, who remains uncannily sad and perceptive.
At bottom, Undertow is all about the boys. As Bell observes, “everything is real,” as they sought out junkyards and other remote locations, endured dirt for days, and committed themselves to the project wholly and lovingly. Even as the brothers resist the vivid legacy of desperation and distrust embodied by John and Deel, this next generation is also doomed. Impressionistic and peculiar, their story gives way to odd bits of poetry and Orr’s dreamily untidy imagery.