Treading water

“Undertow,” the third film from director David Gordon Green, isa mess. It’s an interesting mess, but a mess nonetheless. Unsurewhether it’s a poetic drama or Hollywood thriller, the movie graspsfor a steady tone and can’t find one. And while the movie has somegenuine moments of poetry, it most resembles an album with a fewgood songs but no cohesive vision.

The plot of “Undertow” begins with John Munn (Dermot Mulroney)and his two sons Chris (Jamie Bell) and Tim (Devon Alan) as theywork on their farm in the backwoods of Georgia. Chris is a hornymiscreant who routinely finds himself on the wrong side of the law,while his younger brother Tim is a dreamy bookworm with an anxietydisorder. When John’s brother Deel (Josh Lucas) arrives one day,fresh from prison and asking about a set of rare Mexican coins inJohn’s possession, the mood gets dangerous quick. The brothers havea rocky history together. When they were boys, John stole Deel’sgirlfriend, Olivia, away from him and made her his wife. This eventhas tortured Deel his whole life and left him with the impressionthat life has passed him over. Though John offers Deel work and aplace to stay on his arrival, it’s not long before the brothers areclashing over past wounds. When the two boys witness Deel killingJohn for his rare coins, they run off to escape his wrath with goldcoins in tow.

One of the movie’s main problems is Deel. Early in themovie we can’t help but feel sympathy for his unfortunatesituation. He’s a broke ex-con forced to seek help from the brotherwho cuckolded him. But when he kills John and hunts his two fleeingboys all over Georgia, we lose all sense of the character’sinterior life. There never seems to be any doubt in Deel’s mindabout wanting the coins or killing the boys. The minute Deelmurders John, he loses all human dimension, which hurts the movieirrevocably. Without any moral depth, Deel is like any otherthriller-villain: cold-blooded, calculating and bloodthirsty.

When the movie isn’t showing Deel on the hunt, it’s showing usthe quiet poetry of rural Georgia as seen through the eyes of twofleeing boys. The brothers meet a sweet couple who can’t conceiveand so are delighted to share their dinner table with two children;they find an abandoned junkyard and build a makeshift shelter fromold trash, and they are invited into a homeless camp that resemblesthe relics of a castle, albeit a graffiti-strewn one. But thesequiet, poetic scenes are overshadowed by the scenes with Deel.Every time Deel enters a frame, Green switches his directing styleinto thriller-mode. Unless you’re Jonathan Demme, attempting toflip back and forth between shooting styles is a foolish move. Byadopting the mannerisms of a conventional thriller, Green isworking against himself.

Green’s debut movie “George Washington” was an understated movieabout children in rural North Carolina that won him much deservedpraise. But with “Undertow,” Green is over his head. Instead ofworking with his strengths, Green tries to map out territoryreserved for veteran Hollywood directors, directors who know how toshift tones seamlessly. In “Undertow,” you don’t just see theseams, you see them popping out.