Suspense is not one of the many things young director David Gordon Green does well. For Undertow, Green has decided to graft his poet-with-a-concussion directorial style onto a storyline that borrows from such classic thrillers as Night of the Hunter, In Cold Blood and even his idol Terence Malick’s naïve-murderers-on-the-run masterpiece, Badlands. But the finer points of narrative filmmaking — including backstory, motivation, and, well, narrative — have never been of much use to Green. With nothing to fall back on but a dank, sweaty backwoods atmosphere, Undertow ends up being a singularly weird experience: Tune out the left side of your brain or forever hold your peace.
Not to say this is just another journey into a director’s unique dream-logic, à la Mulholland Drive. Green has a story to tell in Undertow, just not one he plans on getting around to for about an hour or so. Half of the film is a thriller about two white-trash teenage boys on the run from a sadistic uncle who covets their father’s stash of gold coins. The other half of the film’s running time is devoted to peering into the nooks, crannies, crevices and orifices of the American South, and coming up with a collection of oddities that could either be viewed as poetically profound or maddeningly obtuse. Depending on your tolerance for characters who eat household toxins, pick their teeth with butter knives, and choke on chewing gum, Undertow may indeed be the film for you. There hasn’t been this much grime, vomit and phlegm in an indie film since Harmony Korine — director of the disturbing Gummo — put down his digital video cam.
Thankfully, Green has a mostly great cast to lead us through his tour of the rural grotesque. As the supposedly loose-cannon older brother Chris, Jamie Bell (who once pirouetted his way to feel-good fame in Billy Elliot) makes a convincingly inarticulate hero; he’s exactly the sort of soulful, blank-slate muse Green’s films require. Dermot Mulroney eventually overcomes his bizarre character tics and scuzzball wardrobe to register as a tough/tender single dad. The less said about Josh Lucas’ impotently villainous Uncle Deel, however, the better. If Lucas was on the cusp of becoming a bad Hollywood actor before Undertow, this film isn’t liable to reverse the trend; witness his spouting such aphorisms as “A chicken ain’t nothin’ but a bird” and “Don’t ever let the same dog bite you twice.”
All of the characters may talk at length about alligators, swine, turkeys and chiggers, but Green is never able to translate their predatory talk into any sort of meaningful subtext. He may yet find a way to bring his idiot-savant poetry to a mainstream genre picture, but for all its disgusting beauty, Undertow isn’t quite that film.
Showing at the Birmingham 8 (211 S. Woodward Ave., Birmingham). Call 248-644-3456.
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.