Thursday, April 28, 2005

'Undertow' Now Available on DVD

One of last year's best movies was released on DVD this week.

David Gordon Green's Undertow has one of the most excruciatingly painful opening sequences of any film ever made. Any audience member with any sensitivity whatsoever will be wincing throughout the first several minutes of Undertow. (The closest equivalent I can recall is the famous cloud-moon-eye sequence in Un Chien Andalou.)

Undertow did not get the attention it deserved while it was in theatrical release. Part of the reason may be that it could not find its audience, since Undertow does not fit into any particular genre. Is it Southern Gothic? A buddy film? A family drama? It's all of these and none of these.

David Gordon Green, director of Undertow, with Richard Herskowitz at the 2004 Virginia Film Festival in Charlottesville. (Photo by Tim Hulsey)
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Green, at 30 years of age still in the early stages of his career as a director and screenwriter, has been compared by Roger Ebert to the young Martin Scorsese. When he appeared at the Virginia Film Festival last October to discuss Undertow with audiences, Green looked more like an eager film student -- dressed in a hooded sweatshirt, fielding questions with humility and candor -- than like a director on the cusp of critical acclaim.

Green said that his influences as a filmmaker included the "Smokey and the Bandit" movies as well as late-night horror films. He watched a lot of television growing up, sitcoms and dramas and old, classic movies. This background unwinds in films like Undertow by giving them a post-modern sensibility.

Undertow features terrific performances from Jamie Bell (Oscar-nominated for Billy Elliot), Josh Lucas, and especially Devon Alan in a juvenile performance that was ad-libbed brilliantly within the confines of the script by Green and his collaborator, Joe Conway. A musical score by Philip Glass brings all the elements together to form a cohesive whole.

The relationship between the brothers portrayed by Bell and Alan is the anchor of Undertow. It is also what sets Green apart from other directors who try to tell a story about children. These brothers think, feel, act, and react like real teens and pre-teens. Their brains are not fully formed and their understanding of reality is limited. What they do is shaped by their age as much as it is by their situation. Green has tapped into something about our behavior in youth that few filmmakers (or playwrights or novelists, for that matter) have been able to find when creating similar stories.

Years from now people are going to look back at Undertow and wonder why it did not receive a cascade of awards.

1 comment:

Tim said...

Rick, I didn't like "Undertow" nearly as much as you did. When I saw it, I thought it was a "Badlands" knock-off (no surprise, since Terence Malick co-produced the film). Still, it was unjustly neglected, and Tim Orr's cinematography was the best I saw last year, with the possible exception of "House of Flying Daggers." Perhaps the film will finally find an audience on DVD, though I rather doubt it: Green makes films for the cinema, and not for television screens.