Undertow (2004)

Cynthia Fuchs

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.


Director: David Gordon Green
Cast: Josh Lucas, Dermot Mulroney, Jamie Bell, Devon Alan, Shiri Appleby
MPAA rating: R
Studio: MGM
First date: 2004
US DVD Release Date: 2005-04-26
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.

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"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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