An acclaimed young filmmaker who has found success with 2000's "George Washington" and 2003's "All the Real Girls," writer-director David Gordon Green stumbles in a big way with the pretentious, overstylized, and ultimately empty "Undertow." Starting off with a bang in an opening credits sequence modeled after '70s exploitation cinema and featuring a graphic depiction of a nail stabbing through a foot during a chase, Green promptly forgets his stylistic influences soon after. What follows is a meager crime drama with delusions of grandeur.
Widower John Munn (Dermot Mulroney) and his two sons, teenage troublemaker Chris (Jamie Bell) and sickly 10-year-old Tim (Devon Alan), live a hardworking, dead-end life in rural Georgia. Having taken his kids out of school in favor of a desolate, peaceful lifestyle, Chris is forced to do manual labor around the house while Tim is left to sit around, read, and continue his tendency of eating mud and paint, a habit that has left him in a weak, emaciated condition. Their mostly tranquil lower-class lifestyle is put into a tailspin with the appearance of John's brother, Deel (Josh Lucas), freshly released from prison and secretly out to steal the valuable gold coins their father gave him years ago. When Deel's no-good designs lead to tragedy, Chris and Tim have no choice but to go on the run, gold coins in their possession and their dangerous uncle in hot pursuit.
Produced by masterful filmmaker Terrence Malick, "Undertow" more or less steals Malick's ruminative style. Unlike Malick's own brilliant existential war drama, 1998's "The Thin Red Line
," director David Gordon Green confuses subjective complexity with shameless self-importance. The screenplay, credited to Green and Joe Conway, is filled to bursting with stilted dialogue that no one would ever really say, and intermittent character narration that reaches for depth but only comes off as laughably moronic. Meanwhile, the story meanders along at a lugubrious pace, not really going anywhere but with the hint that something emphatic is approaching. When this promise goes unfulfilled, and the film unceremoniously ends with nothing having happened that couldn't have been guessed by the thirty-minute mark, the viewer closes their fist on air.
As the crooked Deel, who has been forced to withhold a secret about Chris since he was born, Josh Lucas (2002's "Sweet Home Alabama
") brings steely veracity and a menacing magnetism to his performance that outshines everyone around him. Deel may be the villain, for all intents and purposes, but Lucas relishes the role. As tight-knit brothers Chris and Tim, Jamie Bell (2000's "Billy Elliot") and newcomer Devon Alan believably form a bond with each other as siblings, but spend most of their time onscreen walking around and not doing much of anything. Supporting turns from Shiri Appleby (2003's "The Battle of Shaker Heights
"), as a teenage runaway, and Kristen Stewart (2002's "Panic Room
"), as Chris' girlfriend, are thanklessly one-note and too brief to make an impression.
A thriller that lacks thrills past the 30-minute mark, and a motion picture that tries to fool viewers into thinking it is about more than it really is, "Undertow" is the perfect cinematic example of a wolf in sheep's clothing. The film wastes a quirky, potentially intense music score by Philip Glass (2004's "Secret Window
") that is reminiscent of his own arrangement for 1983's gorgeous "Koyaanisqatsi" by way of Danny Elfman, wearing out its welcome long before the 107-minute running time has subsided. When "Undertow" finally reaches its soft, unfeeling conclusion, cementing the entire experience as a pointless one, director David Gordon Green's only achievement has been to make you want to take a long, soapy shower and scrub the grime off.