Although there have been at least nine other films called "Undertow," the movie that David Gordon Green's new thriller conjures up is Charles Laughton's spooky "The Night of the Hunter" from 1955.
Almost the same situation and setting: In a remote backwater of the rural South, two siblings are shocked when a new member arrives to a family headed by a single parent. They, and they alone, intuit his malicious intent and try to warn the parent, but to no avail. The new family member then murders the parent and maliciously hunts the children through a kind of dream landscape, as he believes they know where certain treasure is hidden. They must, as children, defend themselves.
In Laughton's eerie version, the "hunter" was played as a bogus preacher/psychopath by Robert Mitchum, in one of the screen's most repulsive yet stunning evocations of evil. In Gordon's variant, it's the young actor Josh Lucas, last seen (barely) as a generic good guy in "Around the Bend" a few weeks ago. No, Lucas is no Mitchum -- who could be? -- but his frightening Deel Munn is a satanic-enough evocation in this singular film.
Lucas, who looks a great deal like Matthew McConaughey, plays Deel as a kind of Jerry Lee Lewis on crack, a blond, sinuous, tattooed jailbird with feral eyes and a twitch to his body language, as if he's itching to strangle something, anything, or bang out "Great Balls of Fire" on the piano. That might sound over the top, but it's not, simply because the other performances in the film are so strong, particularly Jamie Bell's as Chris, the older of the two young Munn brothers.
Jamie Bell? Sounds familiar. Where did Green locate such a strong young southern actor, who so perfectly looks the part as a son of a red-dirt state, tough and resilient? Well, actually Bell is English and he broke through, believe or not (I hardly could), in the cheerful, infectious "Billy Elliot" of 2000. How he could go from Brit ballet boy to true-grit verisimilitude seems incredible; but then I suppose it's merely acting of a special sort.
Bell's Chris and his ill brother, Tim (Devon Alan, in another excellent performance), live with their father, John (Dermot Mulroney), in a ramshackle farmhouse on the edge of the piney forests of the Peach State. They eke out a living, though we have a sense they're in some kind of evil enchantment, rather than just being run-of-the-mill po' folk. It's unstated but vividly expressed that some tragedy has deposited them where they are, seemingly in the middle of the last century.
Then one day, in a primer-gray Plymouth Barracuda that sounds like a PT boat, who should show up but the wild Deel, newly released from prison and looking for a place to stay. (So how did he get the cool wheels? Don't ask. The 'Cuda is the right car for him.) The subtext of "Night of the Hunter" was sexual, as the seductive, crooning Mitchum beguiled his way into poor simple Shelley Winters's heart, bed and cashbox. The subtext here is sibling rivalry, that old Cain-Abel knotted fury, and Green plays the furious animosity between Deel and John off against the far more loving and tender relationship between Chris and Tim. In fact, the movie represents the alpha and omega of brotherhood.
For both John and Deel have dark, buried issues; John seems to suffer from guilt over some alleged misdeed and Deel wants to play that one for all it's worth, while at the same time working to find what he believes is his -- a treasure of gold coins John inherited from their late father.
The two generations of Munn brothers cohabit uneasily under the same shabby roof in the same remote forest until finally violence breaks out: It's fast and very ugly, and the next thing you know, Deel is on the track of the resourceful Chris and the weak and unhealthy Tim, who have just barely escaped.
As cliched as these characters seem, Green finds interesting new ways of presenting them. He's a specialist in this sort of character detail. In his last film, "All the Real Girls," though a romantic comedy, he showed a way of noticing things about people that no other filmmaker would have noticed. In "Undertow," what struck me was that although the two children were in mortal peril, they were still -- directors forget this all the time -- children. Thus, a great detail: When they are hiding out in a junkyard, they can't help but take the time to model their secret chamber after a rocket ship. And the early-warning devices they plant to warn of Deel's approach are utterly childish, which is why they're so effective.
One could fault "Undertow" for a few clunky coincidences that mar the smoothness of the plot: Fugitives in movies (but never in life) always seem to come across slow-moving freight trains with open boxcars just when the need is highest. And one could argue that Green never really tightens the screws as fiercely as he could; for a while, instead of fleeing, it seems the boys are merely drifting through a road movie, where everyone they meet is wonderfully kind while colorful in a zany way as well.
But the movie builds slowly to its grinding climax, and the suspense -- the standard by which a thriller must primarily be judged -- is first-rate.
Undertow (108 minutes, at Landmark Bethesda Row and Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle) is rated R for bloody knife violence.