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MGM Studios DVD presents
Undertow (2004)

"Sometimes it's the strange moments that stick with you."
- John (Dermot Mulroney)

Review By: Joel Cunningham  
Published: April 25, 2005

Stars: Jamie Bell, Josh Lucas, Dermot Mulroney, Devon Alan
Other Stars: Shiri Appleby, Kristen Stewart
Director: David Gordon Green

MPAA Rating: R for violence
Run Time: 01h:48m:07s
Release Date: April 26, 2005
UPC: 027616921611
Genre: drama


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
A- A-A-B+ B

DVD Review

Something has always bothered me about ostensibly cheerful children's movies like Home Alone. While watching the precocious, towheaded young hero thwart the villains through elaborate traps and quick-minded trickery, I've never been able to ignore the underlying violence of a story about adults who want to do some very bad things to children, usually in pursuit of money. David Gordon Green's Undertow imagines this scenario in a no less realistic but more horrifyingly genuine fashion. The movie may be about a couple of kids trying to keep a stash of gold coins away from a menacing thief, but it's no Goonies. Unless I've blocked out the grisly murder in that Chris Columbus film, along with Corey Feldman's performance and the scene where the fat kid is forced to do that little dance.

A grimy, backwoods tall tale, Undertow is a change of pace for Green, whose previous efforts, George Washington and All the Real Girls, have carried an air of naturalism bordering on documentary. From the opening sequence, it's pretty clear this one is going to be an entirely different trip: Chris (Billy Elliot's Jamie Bell, pulling off a credible southern accent) throws a rock through his girlfriend's window, and winds up running from her father, who follows close behind with a shotgun. He's barefoot, and when he jumps a fence, his foot comes down on a nail sticking straight out of a 2X4 (speaking of Home Alone). Instead of pulling it out, the boy bashes the end to the side to hold it in his foot and continues running, the board slapping against the ground with every step until he jumps off a cliff into a filthy pool of stagnant water. And... cue opening titles. That's the way to start a movie.

That scene sets the tone, and Green totally immerses you in this otherworldly version of backwoods Georgia. Chris and his younger brother Tim (Devon Alan) have been exiled here by their father, John (Dermot Mulroney), who retreated from his life after his wife died. Chris has dreams of running away with his girlfriend (Kristen Stewart), and resents his father for doting on Tim. Tim, meanwhile, fills his days playing with the hogs and eating paint—though it's never directly addressed, he suffers from a condition known as pica, a psychological compulsion not uncommon in impoverished areas. Instinctually, the bodies of malnourished children known they need iron and other minerals to survive, and they eat dirt and paint chips, even though it makes them vomit, which Tim does, frequently.

Into this happy home life wanders Deel (Josh Lucas), John's estranged brother, who was involved with the boys' mother first and may be Chris' real father. He's out of jail and looking for work, but soon it becomes clear he's more interested in a cache of stolen Mexican gold coins John inherited from their criminal father. Blinded by greed and jealousy, Deel violently, irreparably shatters the fractured family's home life (a scene Gordon films with an agonizing air of realism), and Chris and Tim flee into the woods with the gold, which they believe may be cursed—the bounty paid to Charon, who ferries the souls of the dead over the river Styx.

Green moves the plot along quickly, but never sacrifices atmosphere, and though the story is somewhat conventional, it feels like nothing else. I said this is a change of pace for Green; that's not really true—the story still unfolds with the same natural rhythms, but it melds curiously with the surreal in a way that's not necessarily describable, but is undeniable. The boys may as well be traveling through a dream world as they try to stay one step ahead of their pursuer. They encounter forgotten backwoods characters with their own sad stories, and the trek takes on mysterious overtones of death and superstition, yet it never stops feeling real. The boys are in mortal danger, and Green hardly gives you a minute to catch your breath as the brothers plunge deeper into swamps and forests right out of fairy tales.

The main cast really only amounts to Jamie Bell, Devon Alan, Dermot Mulroney, and Josh Lucas, but all four give very strong performances. Lucas may be using the same accent, but he's miles from the country bumpkin he played in Sweet Home Alabama, and Alan is entirely natural and unrehearsed, which is always a surprise when you're watching a film with young actors. Jamie Bell, who most probably still know only from the Irish feel-good hit Billy Elliot, proves his versatility with a difficult, largely internal performance.

More than anything else, the movie reminds me of the underground cult film Night of the Hunter, another story of children in a nightmare world on the run from a very bad man. But while it's been fairly well documented that that Robert Mitchum classic was largely a happy accident, the product of a low budget, an indifferent studio, and an ambitious actor-turned-filmmaker, with Undertow, it's clear from the first unsettling scene that Green's work is no accident—he knows exactly what he's doing, and his creative touch is unmistakable.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A-

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicyes


Image Transfer Review: Undertow is presented in a very clean, crisp transfer with a slightly gritty, sepiatone quality that gives it the look of a 1970s B-picture. Detail is very good, blacks are strong, and I noted no instances of artifacting or marked edge enhancement.

Image Transfer Grade: A-

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Spanish, Portugueseyes
Dolby Digital
5.1
Englishyes


Audio Transfer Review: Undertow is a fairly low-key film, but the sound design makes good, subtle use of the surrounds to create atmosphere and support the eerie Philip Glass score. The front channels are put to good use as well, with clear dialogue and good stereo separation.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+

 

Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 20 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
4 Other Trailer(s) featuring Walking Tall, Code 46, Assassination Tango, Die Another Day
2 Deleted Scenes
1 Documentaries
1 Feature/Episode commentary by director David Gordon Green and actor Jamie Bell
Packaging: Keep Case
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL

Extra Extras:
  1. Animated photo gallery
Extras Review: Undertow came and went at the box office without making a splash even in terms of the art house circuit, but it should have a long life on DVD, provided people can get past the awful cover art. Sheesh, MGM, Photoshop is a means to an end, not a replacement for graphic designers.

Director David Gordon Green and actor Jamie Bell contribute a relaxed, informative, and entertaining commentary, featuring a good dose of both on-set anecdotes and character discussion, with technical commentary from Green thrown in for good measure. There's nothing too surprising—Green reveals the "paint" Tim ate was made of yogurt and the "dirt" tasted like brownies—and I would have appreciated a bit more insight into the ambiguous ending (though I suppose that would defeat the purpose). Jamie does have a good story to tell about the time on the set when a nail really went through his foot, however.

The making-of, Under the Undertow, runs 27m:50s, including a short intro from Josh Lucas, who explains he and his brother decided to work on a documentary during the filming. It's a good piece, with a combination of interviews with Green and other crewmembers and amusing on-set footage of scenes in production, with a refreshing lack of fluff and filler. Not a revolutionary inclusion, but a nice piece nonetheless.

Two deleted scenes provide an extended look at a pair of oddballs Tim and Chris encounter and an ambiguous extended scene between Tim and Deel cut from the end of the movie that I found confusing but rather touching.

The disc also includes an animated photo gallery, the effective trailer, and random promos for Walking Tall, Code 46, Assassination Tango and Die Another Day.

Extras Grade: B

 

Final Comments

Like some creepy backwoods campfire story, Undertow will haunt your dreams. In just three feature films, director David Gordon Green has proven himself a master at sustaining tone and atmosphere, and his latest is an unrelenting, uncompromising thriller that's like nothing I've seen before and isn't something I'm likely to forget. It's pretty dark and grimy, and probably not for all tastes, but that's true, I think, of any truly unique film. MGM has certainly made a DVD worth the risk, as well, with a great presentation and a good collection of extras.

 


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