In his first two features, George Washington and All The Real Girls, David Gordon Green created a filmic world of his own. Sure, there's a touch of Terrence Malick (Badlands, The Thin Red Line) to his use of nature imagery and heightened dialogue, evoking an American South at once lyrical, primal and surreal. But, the way Green explores youth in a context seemingly out of time feels wholly distinct - and fully realised with it.
He knows not to repeat himself, too. For his third film, Green jumps into more rugged terrain than that of the wistful Girls, a point made from the off with some nasty business involving a nail and a crucified foot. Blood, vomit, dirt and pain are among Undertow's robust ingredients. It's a richer stew of allusions as well, ranging from The Bible (Cain and Abel, Chris/Christ) to Charles Laughton's classic The Night Of The Hunter. What's more, the conviction of Green's direction enables him to give Jamie Bell a thorough makeover. The former Billy Elliot undergoes a miraculous transformation into a Southern rebel without a cause - and after that nail, he ain't dancing. He's given fine support, too, in Devon Alan's winningly odd kid brother and the redneck devilry of Josh Lucas' grasping interloper.
So why only three stars, then? Well, the film's reference points do swamp it somewhat. Invoking Night Of The Hunter is particularly perilous - Undertow can't help but fall short by comparison. More damagingly, unlike Laughton in Hunter, Green doesn't summon up sufficent interest to make Deel's wolfish pursuit of the boys feel anything more than conventional.
Indeed, the chase plays like flab on the real meat of the movie, which lies in Green's patient meditations on atmospheric, suggestive moments. Grime becomes pure rustic poetry here, and youthful innocence is articulated in scenes as simple as Chris and Tim making a playground from a scrapyard hideout. "Sometimes," their pipe-chewing pop muses, "it's the strange moments that stick with you." Doesn't Green know it.
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With overegged references and an undercooked plot, Undertow isn't Green's best. But a fine cast ensure that it's decent enough.