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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Undertow
MGM // R // April 26, 2005
List Price: $26.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Scott Lecter | posted April 25, 2005 | E-mail the Author
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Highly Recommended
E - M A I L
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The Movie:
Director David Gordon Green is one of those directors whose work is instantly recognizable from only a few moments of a scene. The young director's vision is so unique and interesting that every single frame is imbued with absolute precision and care. Critics have likened Green to Terrence Malick and labeled his work as Southern Gothic. He has been praised endlessly for his first two films, George Washington and All the Real Girls, and has become a bit of an independent wunderkind. All this and Undertow is only his third feature film.

For every bit of critical praise that Green received for his first two films, Undertow is not only the most accessible, but also the most entertaining and deeply moving of his films. On the surface, it has all the trappings of a classic suspense film. Brothers Chris and Tim live on a rural farm in Georgia with their father. Chris is a bit of a troublemaker and Tim can never seem to keep any food down. All is pretty much fine until their Uncle Deel arrives fresh out of prison. A violent act in the family soon changes everything, and Chris and Tim are forced to flee the farm on their own. Sounds like a pretty straightforward suspense tale, right? Well, in the hands of David Gordon Green, nothing is ever straightforward, and this is where the film really transitions from being an entertaining chase movie into a masterpiece of familial drama.

Weaving in a mythological story about a stash of gold coins, Green sets the brothers off on a journey reminiscent of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. What starts as a straightforward chase film, turns into one big tall tale full of the whimsical and fantastic as Chris and Tim take refuge in a junkyard that they turn into a modern day pirate camp. They meet some of the most absurd and strange characters along the way, and ultimately, learn what it really means to be part of a family. What it means to be part of something infinitely larger. The things they've witnessed and the hardships they've had to endure all add up to create a bond that carries them through the entirety of the film. Chris and Tim are continually searching for someone to nurture them and, although they show it much differently, they are perpetually full of stress, rage, and disgust for what has become of their family. Chris acts out. Tim throws up. They are, however, always looking for ways to help each other cope. They're practically saving each other at every single turn.

It's hard to say exactly what makes Undertow such as powerful and deeply moving film, but it has a lot to do with the chemistry of the wonderful cast. David Gordon Green could not have found a better fit for any one of his characters as each actor truly takes this opportunity to shine brighter than they ever have before. After watching Jamie Bell in Undertow, you'll never again be able to see him as simply the boy from Billy Elliot. His performance is nuanced and impressive, and his characterization is probably the most absolutely believable in the film. Bell becomes Chris Munn for the entirety of the film and every single movement he makes onscreen only helps to reinforce the character. Dermot Mulroney plays the tough father to perfection, and Josh Lucas is able to bring a bit of humanity to the otherwise irredeemable Deel. Known mostly for his roles in larger Hollywood films like Sweet Home Alabama, Lucas really shows off his acting chops in a role than a lesser actor would have turned into caricature. And newcomer Devon Alan is a real find as young brother Tim. His subtle performance brings a level of psychological depth to the character that only makes the bond with his brother Chris that much stronger. This is, by far, the most star-studded cast that Green has gotten to work with in his career, and the close-knit nature of the production is abundantly clear by just how well these actors all work together.

Equally (if not more) important to the success of Undertow is the work of David Gordon Green. His distinct style is apparent from the very first moments of the film and stay consistently so throughout. Green employs everything from jump cuts to freeze-frames to optical blowouts. It's an absolutely mesmerizing way to watch a film and something that, in the hands of a lesser director, could have easily becoming distracting. Green, however, is so sure handed and consistent that his style not only makes the visual look of the film more interesting, but also helps to provide the film with much more emotional depth. His style isn't simply for looks. Every single thing that happens in a David Gordon Green film means something. Even the absurdities that are so apparent throughout. That's why repeat viewings of his films are almost essential. You only gain a deeper respect for them every single time you watch them.

Working with Director of Photography Tim Orr, Green captures the beauty and downright dirtiness of southern Georgia. This is one of the muddiest, filthiest films I have ever seen, and somehow Orr has managed to make it all look gorgeous and authentic. These characters are literally covered in mud throughout most of the film. So much so that it almost makes you want to take a bath. It makes it hard to watch these characters get dragged through the proverbial mud (both literally and figuratively), but when the film finally reaches its conclusion, you wish you could spend just a little more time with Chris and Tim. Take all that, and throw in a beautifully haunting Philip Glass score and you've got the makings of the best movie of 2004 that no one saw. David Gordon Green will be sticking around for a long time, but it would serve you best to start catching up on his work now. Undertow seems like the perfect place to get started.


Undertow is presented in an anamorphic 1.85:1 widescreen format that makes the muddy, southern landscapes of the film look incredibly authentic. David Gordon Green works in a very brown, earthy color palette and these understated colors come across beautifully on this transfer. You'd think these actors actually emerged from the day's work caked in mud. The image is so vivid that you can almost smell the muck and mud creeping up from the ground. Fleshtones are accurate, and when bright flashes of vibrant color do make an appearance, their hues are well balanced and rich. Blacks are deep, if a bit soft during just a few lower light scenes. Shadows and lighting are well delineated, and the inherent grain in some scenes never becomes distracting. The only real issues with this transfer are the occasional appearance of dirt, spots, and scratches on the print. For an independent film like Undertow, however, some print damage is to be expected and, at times, even makes the film look more authentically southern. There is also some slight edge enhancement throughout the film, but it does not distract from the fact that this is a superb transfer that really brings to life the film's earthy, southern environment.

The audio on this disc is presented in a Dolby Digital 5.1 format that manages to do everything it needs to while also allowing the hauntingly beautiful score by Philip Glass to flourish. Dialogue is always clear, crisp, and distinct, although there are times when the level drops slightly and becomes a bit overwhelmed by the sound effects and score. It is, however, still discernable at all times. The surround channels don't get too much of a workout effects-wise, but they do come alive at a few key moments in the film to provide some nice surround action and ambience. Nevertheless, the best aspect of this track is the way the Philip Glass score completely envelopes you as Chris and Tim embark on their journey through the countryside. Reminiscent of his score for Candyman, Glass manages to make the score both elegant and haunting. It provides an ominous foreboding feeling that is exemplified by this track's use of the score. Spatial separation across the front channels is just fine, but this audio presentation knows exactly when to allow the surround channels to bring another layer to the excellent soundtrack. While it may not be incredibly dynamic, this track is more than adequate in every aspect and exemplary in others.

For an independent film that did not exactly manage to rake in big bucks at the box office, MGM has really stepped up to make this a nicely rounded DVD release with some excellent extra features.

The first, and most engaging, extra feature is a commentary track with Director David Gordon Green and Actor Jamie Bell. The duo clearly became fast friends while filming Undertow, and they work really well together on this track. The young director is very open about the film as he shares anecdotes from the shoot, discusses the casting process, and talks about the unique appeal of his films. Green pinpoints some of the films that influenced Undertow and even touches on the obvious influence of novels like Treasure Island and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn on his story. He may be young, but it's clear that Green is well versed in many aspects of film and literature, and he talks pretty eloquently about them in this track. Jamie Bell's participation on this commentary, on the other hand, is an interesting one. This is actually the first time he's seen the finished film. At time, this makes the track surprising and fresh as Bell watches the action unfold before him. There are times, however, when Bell's lack of familiarity with the finished product leaves him sitting awestruck. Bell even mentions a few times that he wishes Green would just keep quiet for a while so he can watch the film. Nevertheless, this commentary track is one of the most fun and loose that I've heard in quite some time. Not only does this breeziness make the track a whole lot of fun, but it also makes it incredibly informative.

Also included on this disc is an approximately 30-minute long behind-the-scenes documentary called "Under the Undertow," which also includes an optional introduction by Actor Josh Lucas. The feature, shot by Lucas and his brother (along with several other cast and crew members), provides a great insider's look at the making of the film. Not only do we get a bunch of very informal interviews with most of the major players, but we also get to see a lot of behind-the-scenes clips from the actual shoot. The best thing about this documentary is that it does not feel studio-produced at all. It feels much more like a series of home movies shot by the cast and crew, which gives the feature a very independent, friendly feel. This is definitely not your usual EPK-style documentary with slick music and flashy titles. It's much more down-home style feeling makes it one of the most intimate and entertaining extra features I've ever seen. I only wish it could be even longer.

There are also two deleted scenes included on this disc. As David Gordon Green writes, in a quick text introduction, the scenes are not in the best of shape. They are, however, some very interesting moments, and it's nice to see them included on this disc.

We also have a 5-minute long animated photo gallery that includes mostly candid shots from the shooting of the film that play as a slideshow with a very catchy tune in the background. The theatrical trailer for Undertow is also included.

Finally, there are five trailers for MGM Means Great Movies, Walking Tall, Code 46, Die Another Day, and Assassination Tango, as well as six recommendations for other MGM releases.

Final Thoughts:
You know a director has really done something right when, after watching his third film, you immediately go back for repeat viewings of his first two. David Gordon Green is slowly becoming the master of the Southern Gothic, and Undertow merely cements his play as a major player in the cinematic landscape. So much more than a simple suspense film, the film weaves elements of familial drama, coming-of-age, and adventure into its tall tale of two young brothers on the run. It's a deeply moving, highly entertaining, and fantastically heartfelt film that offers up just as much mood and atmosphere as it does character development and plot. David Gordon Green's work has been compared, on many occasions, to the work of Terrence Malick. Let's hope, for the sake of American cinema, that Green doesn't follow Malick's example and, instead, continues to make more wonderful films like Undertow, the quality of which is more than enough for me to give this disc a very high recommendation. The inclusion of some excellent bonus material is merely icing on the cake. Or maybe mud in the case of a film as down and dirty as this.

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