Thursday, July 24, 2008
David Gordon Green's Undertow begins with a puzzling start/stop credits montage that sets the tone for the film's hallucinatory pastiche of pop culture and rural life. The film's first image is a blue blur, indistinct and hazy, with the outline of a figure hovering on the edge of resolution. The sound of waves lapping against a shore fade in on the soundtrack, as the camera zooms out to suggest that the image will come gradually into focus. But as the zoom finally resolves the image into a recognizable shot of a beach with a boy walking into the water, the blue fades into black and white, the color draining away as an old man's voice promises a story of violence and bloodshed affecting his grandsons. From here, the credits montage follows Chris (Jamie Bell) as he is pursued by his younger girlfriend's enraged father, who charges through the front door of his house with dual pistols blaring. The credits strike an odd note between over-the-top violence and a serenely contemplative mood that seems to be savoring these crazed visuals as though they were peaceful landscape shots. The credits sequence is also marked by a kitchen-sink approach to filmmaking craft, as Green warps and manipulates the images in crude, self-conscious ways. There are continual freeze frames, giving the action a jittery, rhythmic quality, but even more jarring is the manipulation of color and light, the way the image sometimes flares into blown-out, contrasty whiteness or switches between various color filters, throwing the images into negative relief or zooming in to reveal the grain of the film. When Chris throws a rock through a window, the action is repeated four times before the rock hits, each time with different filters and effects applied to the basic image. The effect is unsettling, giving the sequence a feel somewhere halfway between the credits to a 70s crime drama and an amateurish avant-garde production. Green's techniques seem random, roughly slapped on, though there's a certain poetry to it, like the seemingly arbitrary freeze frame that captures Chris' foot in a closeup just as it's lifting off the ground to run. The action itself has a brutally absurd quality to it when Chris lands on a nail that sticks through his foot, instead of pulling it out he simply bends the nail over and begins hobbling along again, now with a board nailed to his foot like a miniature ski. This ridiculous chase is both harrowing and strangely funny, and the tonal chaos of these opening moments is further compounded by Philip Glass' quietly propulsive score, which is meditative but with tense undertones lurking within. This is an opening designed to confound expectations, to set the audience up for virtually anything after an introduction as strange and stylistically confused as this, what could possibly come next?
The answer is that the film settles down into the rhythms of rural living, on the small rundown farm where Chris lives with his stern father John (Dermot Mulroney) and sickly, cerebral brother Tim (Devon Alan). At this point, the film finally begins to resemble Green's previous two features, the haunting, elliptical George Washington and All the Real Girls, evoking the quietude and routine of this isolated life. Green's eye for small moments and telling detail is as keen as ever, as is his sense of pacing and gift for visual rhythms. In one sequence, he crosscuts between the brooding John, sitting inside smoking a pipe, his face obscured by shadows, and the energetic, angry Chris outside in the garage, hammering away to make a toy for his brother from the board that been stuck to his foot in the first scene. Green's cutting is crisp and evocative, breaking down Chris' efforts into many shots while John's slouched contemplation is held at arm's length in a master shot. At times, the separate spaces also fade into each other, contrasting the electric blue of the garage's lights with the shadowy interior of the house. This sequence, entirely silent, establishes the distant and passive-aggressive relationship between father and son as well as the stumbling, awkward conversation that follows it.
Green's sense of humor, always idiosyncratic, is also at its best here, particularly in tracing the relationship between the two brothers. He has a real feel for the lovable goofiness and nonsense that's often shared between relatives and close friends, and many of these brief scenes provide a sense of eavesdropping on private moments that only make sense to the participants. There's the usual goofing around between siblings smelling each other's armpits, telling silly jokes and the truly weird moments that are distinctly Green, like the dinner where Tim decides to dress up like a pilgrim, which only gets funnier once it's revealed that this isn't some eccentric Thanksgiving tradition but a random quirk. There are also darker shades, like Tim's proclivity towards eating paint and mud, which may be either the source or a symptom of his mysteriously unnamed disease. Green presents all of this with a deadpan objectivity, which is not to say distance he's always both physically and emotionally close to his characters. But his camera is non-judgmental, observing innocent fun and the offhand grossness of Tim's paint-drinking with equal steadiness.
All of this begins to shift into something else altogether after around a half-hour of evenly paced uneventfulness, with the introduction of John's sinister, crazed brother Deel (Josh Lucas), just out of prison and showing up unannounced after not having seen his brother in years. At this point, the film's well-established relationships begin to take on new dimensions as Deel's presence subtly alters the family dynamic and reveals hints of the past that led them to this isolated place. Deel has not come here by accident, he's looking for something quite specific, and his presence in the lonely farmhouse soon comes to resemble nothing so much as Robert Mitchum's creepy, murderous preacher from The Night of the Hunter, a film that echoes in interesting ways throughout the later acts of Undertow. This is especially true when a mid-film act of violence sends the two boys out on the run with Deel doggedly tracking them.
At this point, the quiet rhythms of the scenes on the farm give way to a rambling, discursive trek through the frontiers of weird America. In Night of the Hunter, actor Charles Laughton's dazzlingly strange single directorial feature, a brother and sister are set adrift on a raft through a patently artificial night-time dreamscape, a fantasy vision of the rural South. The second half of Green's film mirrors this journey, but his own fantasy of the South is quite different from Laughton's, night exchanged for the over-exposed brightness of day, and the artificial purity of studio sets exchanged for a rust-colored landscape strewn with wreckage and populated by wonderfully strange individuals. This is a visionary depiction of America at its outskirts, an America of drop-outs, bums, hippies, grubby dock workers, lonely wanderers. The two brothers' odyssey through this wasteland takes them through burnt-out urban ghettos, cluttered docks where the fish-stink practically seeps from the film, and vast open fields. They finally wind up in a junkyard, where they construct their own fantasy home from rusted car parts and bits of metal and trash, capping it off with a cup that ironically reads "Home Sweet Home," perhaps the only moment in the film when Green hits a false note, over-selling the scene's obvious metaphorical and emotional underpinnings. The boys are building a new home for themselves, carving out a new life from the very fabric of the American landscape, finding transient families with a group of street urchins living in communal squalor, or a sad but friendly couple who invite the boys to stand in briefly as a young presence in their home, replacing their long-dead only child. Green always imparts these characters, who are fleeting presences in the narrative, with startling amounts of depth. Characters who have only a minute or two of screen time still manage to convey the impression of fully fleshed-out and delightfully oddball individuals, who, if only you got to linger with them longer, would possibly be just as entertaining as the main characters. Even Deel's wild-eyed pursuit of the brothers is interrupted by deadpan, comical encounters with a goofy mechanic and a cheerfully dumb clerk who chokes on her gum both characters right out of David Lynch's Twin Peaks, in which Green seems to have found a largely unacknowledged inspiration for his own work.
This ragged retelling of Night of the Hunter plays on the original's quality of a genuine American folk tale, transporting the story in time and place but dealing with the same basic battle of innocence against evil and greed. Lucas gives a marvelous performance as the evil brother, playing the character like a cartoon wolf, which is probably appropriate considering the amount of slapstick violence heaped on him in the film. He's especially fascinating when he's bouncing off of Mulroney, who gives an equally compelling performance as the family's troubled patriarch the darkness and quiet of Mulroney sets off Lucas' subtle menace and manic facial expressions. These kinds of tonal contrasts are the film's essential strategy, mashing up the fantastical noir of Night of the Hunter against a 70s TV visual aesthetic or Green's elegiac vision of the modern rural South. After the opening credits, Green employs the freeze frames and other jarring intrusions of technique less frequently, but in the context of a forward-moving narrative such disjunctions are even more jarring. This is a remarkable film from the still-young director, who seems to have come into his own as a fully developed, self-assured voice with his third feature. Undertow melds the elliptical storytelling and pictorial sensibility of Green's first two features with a newly honed sense of tone and pastiche, as Green deftly blends the film's many inspirations and homages into a singular work of his own.