Undertow (2004)

Cynthia Fuchs

Uncle Deel (Josh Lucas) hauls up in his muscle car, his face grizzled and his pink cowboy shirt weirdly stylish.


Director: David Gordon Green
Cast: Josh Lucas, Dermot Mulroney, Jamie Bell, Devon Alan, Shiri Appleby
MPAA rating: R
Studio: MGM
First date: 2004
US Release Date: 2004-10-22 (Limited release)

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.





90 Years on 'Olivia' Remains a Classic of Lesbian Literature

It's good that we have our happy LGBTQ stories today, but it's also important to appreciate and understand the daunting depths of feeling that a love repressed can produce. In Dorothy Strachey's case, it produced the masterful Olivia.


Indie Rocker Alpha Cat Presents 'Live at Vox Pop' (album stream)

A raw live set from Brooklyn in the summer of 2005 found Alpha Cat returning to the stage after personal tumult. Sales benefit organizations seeking to end discrimination toward those seeking help with mental health issues.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

A Lesson from the Avengers for Our Time of COVID-19

Whereas the heroes in Avengers: Endgame stew for five years, our grief has barely taken us to the after-credit sequence. Someone page Captain Marvel, please.


Between the Grooves of Nirvana's 'Nevermind'

Our writers undertake a track-by-track analysis of the most celebrated album of the 1990s: Nirvana's Nevermind. From the surprise hit that brought grunge to the masses, to the hidden cacophonous noise-fest that may not even be on your copy of the record, it's all here.


Deeper Graves Arrives via 'Open Roads' (album stream)

Chrome Waves, ex-Nachtmystium man Jeff Wilson offers up solo debut, Open Roads, featuring dark and remarkable sounds in tune with Sisters of Mercy and Bauhaus.

Featured: Top of Home Page

The 50 Best Albums of 2020 So Far

Even in the coronavirus-shortened record release schedule of 2020, the year has offered a mountainous feast of sublime music. The 50 best albums of 2020 so far are an eclectic and increasingly "woke" bunch.


First Tragedy, Then Farce, Then What?

Riffing off Marx's riff on Hegel on history, art historian and critic Hal Foster contemplates political culture and cultural politics in the age of Donald Trump in What Comes After Farce?


HAIM Create Their Best Album with 'Women in Music Pt. III'

On Women in Music Pt. III, HAIM are done pretending and ready to be themselves. By learning to embrace the power in their weakest points, the group have created their best work to date.


Amnesia Scanner's 'Tearless' Aesthetically Maps the Failing Anthropocene

Amnesia Scanner's Tearless aesthetically maps the failing Anthropocene through its globally connected features and experimental mesh of deconstructed club, reggaeton, and metalcore.


How Lasting Is the Legacy of the Live 8 Charity Concert?

A voyage to the bottom of a T-shirt drawer prompts a look back at a major event in the history of celebrity charity concerts, 2005's Live 8, Philadelphia.


Jessie Ware Embraces Her Club Culture Roots on Rapturous 'What's Your Pleasure?'

British diva Jessie Ware cooks up a glittery collection of hedonistic disco tracks and delivers one of the year's best records with What's Your Pleasure.


Paul Weller Dazzles with the Psychedelic and Soulful 'On Sunset'

Paul Weller's On Sunset continues his recent streak of experimental yet tuneful masterworks. More than 40 years into his musical career, Weller sounds as fresh and inspired as ever.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.