Every filmmaker stumbles, and for David Gordon Green, the third time was not the charm. After the critical successes of George Washington and All the Real Girls, Undertow is a disappointment. Green has a distinct style that favors mood and atmosphere over narrative. Narrative was not as important as the general mood of the film, and watching Green's films was almost an experience. Undertow feels caught in the middle between Green's unique style and a more conventional film. Meshing the two together does not work well, and the causes the film to move at a plodding pace.

Undertow deals with a Southern family. John Munn (Dermot Mulroney, About Schmidt, Lovely & Amazing) is a single father raising two sons. He works far away and often comes home late, and is unusually hard on his older son Chris (Jamie Bell, Nicholas Nickleby, Billy Elliot). Chris' brother Tim (Devon Alan, Throttle, Firestarter 2) is much younger, but does nothing but play all day. He has a habit of eating things like dirt and paint, which makes him sickly, and suppresses his appetite for normal food. It's not clear if John or Chris know about this. Life changes for all three when John's estranged brother Deel (Josh Lucas, Around the Bend, Wonderland) arrives. John convinces Deel to stay and help out for a while before he moves on, and Deel agrees.

There is a festering secret between John and Deel, and when it comes to light, Chris and Tim run away, with Deel quickly on their heels. Much of Undertow deals with Chris and Tim on the run. Chris is headstrong, and wants to be the one to take care of him and his brother, even though he is clearly unable to do so because of his age. He has a history of trouble with the police, so instead of going to them, he shuns them. He is acting much older than he is. This could be interesting, but when Green stretches it out over nearly two hours, it sometimes feels unbearable. He even changes scenes with old-fashioned dissolves where the screen slowly fades to black before opening on a new one, making Undertow feel slower.

Green works best when seeped in the atmosphere around him. His films move fluidly from one thing to the next, and his characters speak naturally. Watching his films feels like watching normal people interact, not like watching a film. The first third of Undertow works. The interaction between Mulroney and Bell feels real, and the tension palpable. Anything after feels like typical Hollywood junk. It is difficult to reconcile Green's love for slowness with the fast pace of the chase plot, and by trying to do so, both parts emerge worse for wear. It is unsatisfying as a suspense film, and unsatisfying as an art film. Nevertheless, one thing manages to rise above the fray - Undertow looks great.

Mongoose Rates It: Not That Good.
1 hour, 47 minutes, Rated R for violence.

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