Wednesday, June 3, 2015

What-to-Watch Wednesday - Undertow (2004)

I have a true love for southern gothic literature.  A genre of storytelling that makes poetic and lyrical individuals and circumstances that would seem the least likely to possess such traits.   It's why I dig on Faulkner and O'Connor and (in certain ways) Morrison.  And that love has transferred to films, although rarely does a film capture those qualities the way prose does.

As such I marvel at the films of David Gordon Green because one after the other is straight-up pure southern gothic at its grittiest and most melodramatic (obvious exceptions, like his mainstream ventures, excluded, of course).

A standout among his films in this vein is Undertow.  It tells the story of a poor, backwoods family (a widower and two sons) living a secluded life somewhere in rural Georgia.  The father, John, crippled from the heartbreak of losing his wife years earlier, struggles to raise his sons.  The oldest one, Chris, is in constant trouble with the law, and the youngest, Tim, apparently suffers from pica, a disorder that makes him want to ingest non-food items, like paint and dirt.

The tenuous family structure is shaken up by the arrival of Deel, John's estranged brother.  Deel has just been released from prison for committing some unspecified crime, and he brings with him old rivalries and resentments.  The tension between the adult brothers grows and culminates in an act of violence that sends the two boys running away on a cross-country trek with Deel in hot pursuit.

The hows and whys of what happens while the boys are on the run are the magical moments that really make this film something remarkable.  The deep southern setting, under Green's keen eye, becomes an enchanting locale filled with wonder and creeping danger.  The characters, limited and at times pathetic, are given a dignity through this mythical quality that their lives don't provide.  When all is said and done, the viewer feels a strange kinship to these characters, characters who wouldn't normally elicit a second glance in real life.

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