IN THE OPENING scene of "Undertow," David Gordon Green wants you to know a filmmaker's at work. Chris (Jamie Bell) hurls a rock at an upstairs window, this to rouse a pretty girl. Dad comes out with the gun and the nasty dog. Chris goes running and, over the course of his helter-skelter rush, pushes his bare foot into a nasty nail sticking out of a board.
He keeps running, looking like a demented surfer. Pounding his foot on that . . . ugh.
This is your wince-inducing entry into a movie that wants to be two things: a sensual, down-south visual essay in the style of Green's previous inspired films, "George Washington" and last year's "All the Real Girls," and (how to put this?) a Bubba thriller. The result: a movie with singularly striking moments, like the one above, and passingly gorgeous images, but unevenly torn between its would-be poetry and its melodramatic narrative. There also seem to be passing nods to "Badlands" (whose director Terrence Malick happens to be one of the producers), "Cape Fear," "In Cold Blood" and "Night of the Hunter." The film is, unfortunately, none of these classics. It's just sort of trying.
The story: Chris lives in a hardscrabble, woodsy corner of a southern state. His father, John (Dermot Mulroney), a mopey loner and farmer, is still mourning the loss of his wife and bearing down hard on Chris to keep up with the chores. Chris's younger brother, 10-year-old Tim (Devon Alan), lives in a world of his own. He reads books (sorts them by smell, he says). He has a stomach ulcer. He won't eat, but he regularly feeds himself paint, mud and other bizarre stuff.
Into this rustic, dysfunctional setup comes an instant villain (Josh Lucas) straight out of the Bad Bubba Book. He's John's brother Deel, just out of prison, and he's got something on his mind. It can't be good, judging by his false show of affection and darting eyes. Turns out, he's looking for a bag of gold pieces that John and Deel's father left for them. A brutal series of moments later, the boys are on the run, Deel's chasing, and the brothers are thinking Mexico.
Their flight is the main thrust of the story. But it's a flimsy excuse for Green (in returning partnership with cinematographer Tim Orr) to return to his seeming predilections for the rural, the remote and the eccentric. The movie, as with his previous and better work, is full of long-lasting scenes with characters who seem semi-coherent in some instances, then given to post-Southern gothic, jus' tawkin' moments, such as when Tim suddenly riffs on the subject of chiggers under the skin. Also big here is the meaningful middle-distance stare. And the freeze frame. Although Green was raised in Texas and went to art school in North Carolina, there's a sense of metro observing retro here. There's an original sensibility behind this movie, but you can't tell whether or not to trust it. Is this someone who knows he can get attention by concentrating on a different look, a different world? Or is it someone with a genuine feel and love for these places? The truth probably lies somewhere in between, knee-deep in pig slop. Watching this, however, you hold little doubt that Green is good for more and better.
UNDERTOW (R, 108 minutes) -- Contains gruesome material, violence and obscenity. At Landmark's Bethesda Row and Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle.