Sunday, April 13, 2014

A Decade Old: Undertow

2004 was, at least in my mind, a sort of banner year for movies in that the kind of cinema we have today really got started that year. In and of itself it was also just a really unique 12 months for movies. Hard to believe it's now 2014, meaning many great titles from that year start coming up in conversation and writing as they turn 10 years old. With that in mind, I'm hoping to talk about throughout the year various movies that are now a decade old.

With the release of Joe in theaters this month, it's quite fitting to talk about the film it most resembles in David Gordon Green's oeuvre, Undertow. Its content and narrative are pure Southern goth, while its style is, especially in the second half, closer to the lyricism of Green's debut feature, George Washington. The story, which concerns two brothers who go on the run after their uncle kills their father in a fight over some valuable Mexican gold coins, is steeped in tradition. The notions of brother killing brother and father hating son (a twist that we learn relatively early is that the uncle is actually the father of the oldest son) are the driving forces in the movie and they carry a biblical proportion, while the overall down-and-dirty grittiness of the plot is in line with a great tradition of American literature. On cinematic terms, though, Green takes some radical chances. The film is full of freeze frames, dramatic zooms, and even the occasional thermal camera-style shading. I'm not sure what Green is going for with the latter, but the freeze frames have a nice effect in the way they either close out one dramatic action and bring on another (sort of like a chapter in a book) or simply disrupt the viewer's expectation of a steady flow of moving images (if I recall, Green stated in the DVD commentary that he wanted them essentially be like photographs in order to reflect the cinema/photography connection and also show how they're distinctly different). 

The movie has two clear halves: the first is static, as Green introduces us to the main characters (father, two sons) and the general lifestyle they have. When the uncle (just out of prison) arrives there is a sense of unhinging that takes place, as the relatively normal, albeit stressful life of this family is charged with an uneasy sense of energy. When he abruptly enters a room with intense vigor just to say goodnight, or takes the oldest son for a wild, dangerous car ride, we know we're dealing with a loose cannon who brings trouble wherever he goes. The second half however is defined by movement, as the two brothers, with the valuable coins, try to escape from their villainous uncle. One would think this would be the more exciting of the two parts, yet Green actually slows things down and brings in all sorts of strange characters and allows for the relationship between the two brothers to nicely develop. There's tension for sure, but it's not till the final ten minutes that the movie could properly be called a thriller. The kinds of stories with two such distinct parts can be trouble to pull off, yet Green manages because of the way they're tied together. Because the cat and mouse game is directly linked to the events earlier in the film, and because the two brothers really have no choice but to run, we never really question the jarring shift in the story. 

Despite getting the southern goth label from just about everyone who reviewed it, Undertow also more specifically has been likened to the works of Faulkner. It definitely has the same flavor, the same oddities (like the younger brother eating things like dirt and paint) and the same attempt at themes outside of the specific story and setting. Now that Green seems to have returned to his roots after his puzzling venture into comedy (or perhaps not so much, as Green was recently quoted as saying "I have a sense of humor. I'm not always this lyrical, slow-moving, Southern crybaby" in regard to his love for and desire to make all kinds of movies), I wouldn't mind seeing him follow in James Franco's footsteps and attempt to actually adapt a Faulkner novel.

Final note: look the for the Bill McKinney appearance towards the end, a fitting cameo considering that Green cites Deliverance as one of the big influences on this film. 

No comments: