I’ve been trying to write about David Gordon Green’s ambitious, curious third effort for a full week now, but have been distracted by the Boston Red Sox. Loving the Sox, forgiving the Sox, creating a voodoo altar for the Sox is a full-time job at this juncture, and we Boston-bred girls and boys can’t help but feel that if we don’t concentrate solely on the boys, they just may lose. Dysfunctional love affairs grow superstitious after a while. See? Manny Ramirez just took care of Walker in the first inning of Boston’s first game against the Cards on their home turf, and I’m convinced it’s because I stopped typing this to meditate on my hero’s Jheri-Curl.
Luckily, writing about Undertow isn’t that different an experience. Take the film’s opener, which looks at first like a wonky little no-winner. A boy runs barefoot through the woods, a pissed-off father chases him down, music twangs — and then the boy leaps on a nail, which cuts clear through his foot with a horrible squish of blood and cartilage and bone. It’s visceral, harsh, too much; I just can’t stop thinking about it.
With an easy, dry naturalism and mostly no-name castmembers, George Washington and All the Real Girls, Green’s first two features, succeeded because they weren’t ambitious. The same cannot be said of Undertow, co-produced by the great ‘70s director Terence Malick, whose big greasy thumbprints are smeared all over the lens. Ironically, the film cultivates the feel of a bad ‘70s movie, the sort you watched idly in the middle of a Saturday afternoon as a kid: slightly overexposed so it all resembles a memory; a Philip Glass soundtrack like that of a lost Damien movie (maybe all his music sounds like that, come to think of it); bright yellow block-letter credits; quick freezes and slow, ambling pans; even a heavy-handed strong-arm of a storyline that fumbles for its inner myth.
There is something myth-like about this movie, if not mythic. Certainly many of its details could be lifted straight from the Brothers Grimn tale your mother never read you. John Munn (the moon-faced Dermot Mulroney, who appears over his head without his usual stank Hollywood script to smirk at) is a widowed pig farmer and taxidermist who’s raising his two boys, Tim (Devon Alan) and Chris (Billy Elliot’s Jamie Bell) in a profoundly unmothered household. At first, John reads as flat-out abusive, but you grasp quickly that his parenting is simply unrelentingly masculine. Teenager Chris chomps at his father’s bit, squirming to get off the farm and into a pussy, any pussy. Young Tim is gaunt, with a wild mouth and wild hair, living the wild boredom of an unsupervised, unstimulated childhood. He wears pilgrim hats and shower caps to dinner; organizes his books by smell; eats paint and then vomits matter-of-factly. He has, not surprisingly, an ulcer. No child psychologists here, of course, though the film may well take place in the present (as with all of Green’s films, era is fairly obtuse). Instead, “Tim’s got a rough stomach,” his father explains listlessly.
This is a house where everyone’s so caught in their misery that there’s no point in speaking because you won’t be heard. Where the wallpaper and the bedding and the fixtures disintegrate so visibly that you can just about smell the mold and aging dirt. Where people shuffle about, gnashing their teeth and mashing their food, wearing nothing but long johns and glassy stares and their crazymaking dolor. Where dinner is comprised of a whole roasted pig and none of them pesky green vegetables. This is an isolation chamber for men, a litmus test of what happens when you get rid of All the Real Girls. The result is a fairy-tale world of ghosts. Carnivore ghosts.
The fable truly begins when the Man, John’s brother Deel (Josh Lucas), breaks out of charm school, as someone puts it late in the film. Tightly coiled and menacing, Deel’s so macho that you can’t initially tell whether he’s just wearing more of his brother’s deceptive masculinity. Hell, he smokes Virginia Slims. But Deel’s oily and bristling where John is merely blank, and he’s got a real bone to pick with his brother, who married his girl, it turns out, and made off with the family booty — gold coins that John believes to be cursed, no less. It reveals not so much to say that Deel slays John, and that the children must flee their Evil Uncle (with the nice ass) to set forth, armed with nothing but their wilies and that bag of coins, into a world of urchins. Out there, they stumble upon not only sea and big sky and industry and strange big men but women, though they’re scarcely the capable mother figures the boys so direly need. These women are dumb or conniving, slatternly and sorrowful. They are what those sprung from a City of Lost Manchildren would expect to find, and it is they who unwittingly abet the uncle in reaching what should be his epic standoff with his oldest nephew. Too bad you hardly care by then. Somehow the real movie running beneath the fairy tale slows to a standstill as soon as its heroes journey from their dilapidated castle.
Near the end of this strange specimen of a film, young Tim says dreamily, “I wonder if I’m superstitious.” I wonder if Green is, too, for he has buried within the framework of this bad 70s horror story a stab at a good one, with all of the requisite heart, detail, and proportion — his own bag of gold coins. Perhaps the still-young director is hedging his bets, hoping that such a contrast might lend the tale’s histrionics a much-needed naturalism. The effect works, though not entirely. What lingers instead seems more authentically Green: the slow, narrowing concentric circles drawn of a family devoid of the feminine, a home in which male identity can’t help, like its mythology, but to collapse in on itself eventually.