On first viewing George Washington and All The Real Girls I wondered if I had just witnessed two masterpieces. However, after multiple viewings, some of the films’ flaws began to show themselves. That was not the case with David Gordon Green’s third film, Undertow.
The film is in many ways more complex and layered than Green’s earlier work, making it more difficult to appreciate its true greatness. After the first viewing I saw a great film, but after several repeat viewings I realized just how special a film it is. Not a single shot is misplaced, nor a piece of dialogue a throwaway.
The performances are, across the board, fantastic and compelling; and the music, by Philip Glass, is one of the best scores I have ever heard. Glass, a legendary composer, creates a score that is both bombastic and beautiful when it needs to be.
As Green’s previous films were looks at life in small towns, Undertow is a look at life in complete isolation. We meet the Munn family as it is already in ruins, on the brink of complete disaster. The father has taken his two sons, Chris and Tim, to live in the Georgian sticks, away from all connection to other people. His wife has died, leaving the father unable to cope with any reminder of their previous life. The focus is held on the two sons, Chris who is constantly rebelling due to boredom and frustration and Tim who is bright, quiet, and sickly.
The already unbalanced family begins to unravel as the boys’ uncle, Deel, returns from prison. It is quite clear from the very beginning that he is not looking to get to know his nephews, instead he has returned for a specific purpose. It is once Deel returns that the pacing of the film changes, and from there the pacing is constantly adapting to the story. It is one of the aspects of the film that made it more difficult to judge after first viewing. Usually films which change pace as much as this one feel like a mess, yet this feels perfectly calculated while still feeling completely natural.
Because of Green’s loose shooting style and syncopated pacing this film could have lost its footing, however because of effective editing the film comes together perfectly. Every shot in this film is significant, every line of dialogue makes you learn more about the characters without ever being obvious—something this film could easily have been. It has, instead, a sort of subtlety that is quite unique. Often, things that are only hinted explain the story further, but you must be paying attention to notice them. It is something that rewards repeat viewings, but is not completely needed to understand the film.
Oftentimes films that are considered masterpieces are epic in scale, something this film is not. The story is of one family, and the consequences of grief and greed. Undertow shows us a truly unique story that has never been told on screen, and it does so with expert filmmaking. It is one of the films I have seen the most, as I constantly go back to it, for both entertainment and inspiration.
With this film David Gordon Green proves he has not only grown incredibly as a filmmaker, but also shows he has a style all his own. It is the best film this still young filmmaker has made thus far, however I am sure he will have several more masterpieces in his hopefully long career.