Directed by David Gordon Green
Undertow effectively captures the feeling of watching a myth unfold. It’s the story of two boys on the run, somewhere in a rotting but mystical version of the Deep South, through communities of runaways, individuals looking for love, a couple navigating past tragedies, running along rivers that carry promises to the ocean and escaping from the threat of an almost biblical figure, a killer who represents where you come from and possibly where you’ll return to.
The boys are brothers, Chris and Tim (Jamie Bell, Devon Alan), and they’re on the run from their uncle, Deel (Josh Lucas), who may actually be Chris’ father. That question is never answered, but enough clues offer theories.
The first half of the story concerns the two boys living with their father, John (Dermon Mulroney). It’s not until the midway point at which the film goes full Night of the Hunter after Deel shows up out of the blue, lurks around the edges full of promise and danger, then gets into a scuffle with John that ends with John dead.
The fight has to do with family. Deel, recently released from prison, accuses John of getting him in trouble, which John doesn’t deny. John’s late wife was once Deel’s girlfriend, and those gold coins their dad told them stories about? Well Deel figures they are very real and that John has taken them for himself.
After Deel improbably finds the gold coins the fight ensues, John is killed in brutal fashion, and then Deel comes after Chris and Tim. He has it in mind to kill them not just for the money but for reasons more poetic and disturbing. Deel, believing he is Chris’ father, almost seems to believe it is his right to take out of the world what he brought in. He will pursue Chris to the ends of the world to get what he thinks is his, both the gold and complete control over his alleged son’s fate.
The idea of a father trying to kill you, okay yes it’s traumatizing and horrific, but in the context of a film, where some of the detail is erased or purposefully ignored, it’s kind of poetic. It’s the thing that gave you life now trying to extinguish it. And in a way that’s what life is, right? From the moment you’re born the clock starts ticking. Life is all there is, and yet it’s the abundance of life, or simply time, that slowly takes us back into nothingness. And it’s that sense of ‘nothingness’ that looms in every moment of this film.
Undertow isn’t exactly bleak, but it forces you to be constantly aware of what could doom these young protagonists. The clock is ticking, Deel is after them, and even should they evade the murderous man it doesn’t seem there is anywhere for them to go to put their feet up. They are tirelessly on the run, but should there be no urgency there might still not be anywhere to call their own.
Over the course of their escape they come across a variety of people who shed light into what I guess you would just call the human condition. They are others on the run or people working through something in their own past. They are people similarly untethered or all too tethered to the things that created and defined them.
Despite the ostensible urgency of their flight, there is time for the brothers to sit and think about life. Before they made their getaway Chris briefly had a girlfriend. Later he and Tim happen upon a modest wedding and wonder if they’ll ever get married.
Near the end of the film Chris gets close to a young woman who like him is a runaway. After a kind gesture, some flirtation and then near betrayal (an entire arc in ten minutes), they get close to each other and he gingerly runs his hand over her, making quite tangible the yearning he has felt for quite sometime. Almost immediately after Deel shows up and Chris appears to disappear into nothingness, not figuratively but literally. He goes from tangible flesh to an invisible spirit in a matter of minutes.
And I found it all quite poetic. This is a character for whom the stakes are life and death, and yet he can’t help but find his way through these yearnings and impulses, expressing fear and affection. He is both surviving and living, with each effort only slightly cannibalizing the other.
It all seems quite romantic, even if certain moments reek of a sincerity that might put off viewers of a certain age. There is no room for snark or wit here, no mocking or judgmental glances. These characters are as sensitive and unabashedly sincere as they come.
It’s a beautiful film that lingers on moments outside of the plot. There is of course that urgency to their escape, but the escape doesn’t take place until halfway into the film. Before then we watch as Chris, most notably, rattles his cage, trying to hard to contain his boundless energy that often gets him in trouble with the law. He can’t help himself.
There is as well perhaps an expected tenderness between the two brothers. One is an outlaw, and the other is a bit weird, to put it broadly. Tim has an intestinal issue that has to do, surely, with his tendency to eat paint, mud and anything else you shouldn’t eat. He is perpetually a little bit ill, and I can’t remember any moment in the film in which he ate actual food.
It’s a strange but affecting dynamic, a much healthier relationship than that between the two older brothers, the Cain & Abel. Maybe there’s something here that suggests the progression of fighting brothers to supportive brothers means there’s hope for us all, even as nothingness looms around the corner. Where one set was ruled by greed, the other is defined by compassion.
Up Next: Booksmart (2019), The Morning After (1986), Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)