Ten-year-old Tim (Devon Alan) eats paint. You don’t know this right away. At first he just looks 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. Sitting at the dinner table, Tim plays with his food, not quite able to down the chunk of ham on his plate, the meal his single father John (Dermot Mulroney) serves everyday and for every special occasion too. According to John, Tim has a “rough stomach.”
This much is visibly true. Tim vomits repeatedly in Undertow, 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, evincing a kind of ecstasy.
Tim’s habit is surely odd, but it’s noted only tangentially in Undertow, a symptom of the pain and trouble roiling beneath surfaces. This vaguely defined affliction — psychological? physiological? — recalls the sort of inexplicable quirk afflicting characters in the two other films directed by David Gordon Green and shot by Tim Orr. Much like the thoughtful backwoods kids in George Washington, or the restless young lovers in All the Real Girls, Tim and his older brother Chris (Jamie Bell, quite changed from his debut in Billy Elliot) are getting by in a grim, dirty hothouse of an environment. The film charts their efforts in lyrical, odd instances, less a narrative than a series of impressions.
Initially, their 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 also in love with a girl down the road, Lila (Kristen Stewart).
Disobeying both her father and his, Chris stands defiantly but also tentatively beneath her window one day, tossing a rock through it, supposedly to plead for her attention, but clearly soliciting her dad’s attention as well. Enraged, the old man pitches out the front door, shotgun in hand and pickup truck at the ready, to chase Chris through woods and over dirt roads, a mini-journey tracked in elegiac slow motion and caught in occasional freeze frame, pressed on by Philip Glass’ insistent score. Chris’ escape is narrow and costly: leaping from a rooftop, he lands on a board, driving a nail up through his foot, his own mundane form of stigmata. “You angry about somethin’?” asks the sheriff who picks him up.
Unable to voice his resentment, Chris looks after Tim as best he can. “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 on the scene. 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 history, that’s clear from their first jut-jawed greeting. When Deel complains that it took some 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.
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. That’s not to say that Green quite abandons his luminous aesthetic sensibility: even when its plot is most regular, Undertow maintains its offbeat rhythms and moody surprises. Hiding in the woods and stumbling along dirt roads, the boys briefly take refuge with a well-meaning, deeply loving black couple (Eddie Rouse and Patrice Johnson, whose reading of the line, “We had a little one for a little while, but my breasts were strangers to him,” is simultaneously heartbreaking and startling).
Allowed to rest here, the brothers hardly stop worrying, and are soon on the run 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, uncertain), he also keeps his eye on Tim, sad and perceptive.
At bottom, Undertow is all about the boys. Even as they resist the vivid legacy of desperation and distrust embodied by John and Deel, this next generation of brothers is also doomed. Their effort comprises a mostly conventional trajectory, more contrived and predictable than the lyric anti-narratives of Green’s previous films. Still, Undertow is most compelling when it’s most impressionistic and peculiar, when the story gives way to odd bits of poetry and Orr’s dreamily untidy imagery.