David Gordon Green's latest goes where few art films dare
Late in the rusty, kudzu-overgrown Undertow, two boys on the run find themselves in a dilapidated service station. A hand-lettered cardboard sign, barely seen in the frame, reads "No cell phones." It's the only proof that the story takes place anywhere near this century, and viewers familiar with the intentionally timeless cinema of David Gordon Green - who directed this screenplay by Austinite Joe Conway - may think they've caught him in a mistake.
Not so, according to Green, who told me recently that his crew put the sign there themselves. It's a joking declaration of the filmmaker's philosophy: Cell phones, strip malls, and ubiquitous brand names are not to be found in his films, which recoil from the blandly commercialized here and now in favor of a '70s movie-making aesthetic that values individual artistic voices.
That kinship with the '70s is thrown in your face at the film's beginning, with freeze-frames, manipulated color, and a retro font recalling that decade's exploitation flicks. If Quentin Tarantino produced a TV show, he'd love for it to look like this. (And that's about the only overlap you'll find between the two filmmakers' worlds.)
We're introduced to two brothers, Chris and Tim Munn, who live in isolation with their father. Neither is particularly good at coping with reality: Chris is a frequent guest at the local police station, while his kid brother Tim has a nervous stomach and a fixation on dirt. Tim picks curiously at the accumulated crud under his house, or at the scabby edges of open wounds, then puts the stuff into his mouth. Predictably, Tim throws up a lot; according to doctors, though, that has less to do with his diet than with his brain's unwillingness to cope with life's more abstract mysteries.
The boys are forced to flee their home when a long-lost relation turns out to be a menace. There are a pirate's gold coins to keep safe, dark woods to be navigated, and weird characters in the wild who provide unexpected help - the accumulation of which makes this movie something of a fairy tale. Or,
That seems an odd direction for Green, whose previous work has been more interested in character and complex emotions than action, only until you consider that Terrence Malick - one of Green's inspirations and this film's co-producer - got his start with a feature about a young couple on a killing spree. Bullets and buried treasure can't keep a good filmmaker from making an artful film, and Undertow is one of the most personal, distinctive movies of the year no matter what kind of story it's telling. •
By John DeFore