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UNDERTOW

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Jamie Bell, Josh Lucas, Dermot Mulroney
Director: David Gordon Green
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, Spanish Dolby Surround, Portuguese Dolby Surround
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: MGM
Features: See Review
Length: 108 Minutes
Release Date: April 26, 2005

"YOU SCARED?"

Film ****

David Gordon Green is quite easily the most lyrical filmmaker since Terrence Malick. At only age 30, he has managed to make three films of pure cinematic power, where the visual atmosphere plays a most important role. The first was 2000's George Washington, a southern-based story of tragedy. The second was 2003's All the Real Girls, which told of a true but ultimately doomed romance.

And now Green has made what, I feel, is his best piece of work yet. Undertow is a marvelous mixture of different genres. At its center, it is very much a dark thriller centered on two young brothers escaping the wrath of something hidden in the past, in more than one sense. The film is also an observant character piece, something which Green is a master of.

Set against a rural section of Georgia, the story tells of a struggling family of three, a widowed father, John Munn (Dermot Mulroney) and his two sons. The older of the two, Chris (Jamie Bell), is a troubled individual who lives in a continuing feeling of isolation. Despite his companionship with younger brother Tim (Devon Alan), the communication level between him and his dad has been most sour since the passing of his mother. John is tough on them, but is clearly a loving father.

The opening scene is one of the many surprises the film has to offer, since it seems to defy conventional methods right from the start. Chris is eluding the angry father of a would-be girlfriend. It starts out as a normal foot chase, until the painful moment where Chris leaps from the top of a shed and lands foot first on a nail connected to a wooden board. I haven't felt a more jolting effect from a film in some time.

After establishing the family scenario, the story drops in a fourth crucial figure in the form of Deel (Josh Lucas), John's brother. Deel has just gotten out of prison on parole, and John is quick to welcome him to the home in an effort to help him get back on his feet. But Deel possesses sort of a subtle sinister quality, hinting that there's a bigger reason why he's paying a surprising visit to his brother.

Because Undertow surprises quite frequently, especially with a nasty plot turn about a half hour into the film, I would be doing a disservice by revealing any details of what follows in the rest of the film. I'll just sum it up by saying that as a result of the development, Chris and Tim are fleeing through Georgia's backwoods by foot. Along the way, they run into several interesting characters, which is something to be said since in a more conventional film they would easily be considered "stereotypes".

As a southern gentleman, I must say that I am extremely proud to see a man like a David Gordon Green, a native of Arkansas, set his stories in the south and present them in such a poetic fashion. I'm even more proud of this because Green is actually a truly gifted filmmaker. It's very rare to see any filmmaker put more depth and effort into both storytelling and visual atmosphere, and Green accomplishes both aspects with perfect ease.

There's no question that Terrence Malick, who serves as a producer on this film, served as an inspiration for Green's superb filmmaking style. Each of his films seems to have its own superb echo of Malick's Days of Heaven. Since many films today aren't made in this type of manner, it comes across as fitting homage rather than a cheap running theme.

The performances in the film are and purely mesmerizing. First, there's British-born Jamie Bell of Billy Elliot, who dons a more than accurate southern dialect for the lead role of the troubled Chris. The story is seen from his point of view and we are with him every step of the way, and grow to care for both him and younger brother Tim.

And then there's Josh Lucas as Deel, who fires up the screen with a grand dose of intensity and rage. I don't think I've been more afraid of single character in any recent film. Lucas is deeply chilling, and provides a menacing presence that will stay with you long after seeing it.

To simply put it, Undertow is a brooding masterpiece of cinema, complements of one of our most gifted new filmmakers. David Gordon Green is a master storyteller and visual artist. He's a director of true mood, tone and style, and this is by far his most brilliant offering to date.

Video ****

Being that David Gordon Green is perfectionist of the visual aspects of cinema, there's no question that MGM had any trouble making the most out of a beautiful looking piece. This is indeed a magnificent looking presentation, loaded with endless visual lush in just about every frame. The Georgia countryside setting has never looked more amazing. The anamorphic picture does nothing short of hauling you right into the film with its large level of image detail and sharp crisp image. Colors are quite astonishing as well. Without question, one of the best looking discs of the year!

Audio ***

Although this film is more driven by both dialogue and individual moments of near-silence, the 5.1 mix makes outstanding use of multiple areas. First off, the dialogue is delivered most wonderfully, in all out clarity. The score by Philip Glass is heard in outstanding form, and sequences of tension deliver a most powerful impact. A very well made presentation.

Features ***

A pitch-perfect amount of extras on this MGM release. Included is a commentary track with David Gordon Green and Jamie Bell, a terrific and revealing documentary titled "Under the Undertow", which carries an optional intro by Josh Lucas, who co-directed the documentary. Also featured are deleted scenes, an animated photo gallery, an original theatrical trailer, as well as bonus trailers.

Summary:

Undertow is the epitome of a beautiful and deeply gripping drama, as well as an intense thriller. It once again illustrates David Gordon Green's status as a true cinematic artist, creating and masterfully realizing stories that hit straight to the human soul. Extremely, and highly, recommended!

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