Saturday, November 17, 2018

David Gordon Green: Undertow

Last night I watched one of my favorite films of this century for the first time in easily over a decade, and it reconfirmed why David Gordon Green is among the smartest, best story telling directors we have. And he's only 43, which means he was still only in twenties when he blew me away with his two first feature films which he wrote and directed: 2003's All the Real Girls and 2004's Undertow. Both show an artist already committed to writing and telling his stories his way, no prisoners, no (seemingly) compromises. He's peppered his body of profoundly moving stories with some of the bawdiest, big selling comedies (Your Highness and Pineapple Express) which appeal to the Hollywood comic sensibilities, but allows him to have cred (and dollars) to make the indie art films he does better than most.

An actors' director in the very best sense, Green brings out great work from his casts,and in some instances, their very finest work: Jake Gyllenhaal in Stronger; Sandra Bullock in Our Brand is Crisis; Nicolas Cage in Joe. (Note: Green also makes for great, entertaining and hilarious television - just watch Eastbound and Down and try not to laugh.) In each of those early films he was already surrounded by acting talent that responded to his then unknown's direct, unfussy yet somehow still very artistic style. All the Real Girls featured Paul Schneider, Zoey Deschenal, Danny McBride and veteran goddess Patricia Clarkson who gives a masterclass in the art of acting and breaking your heart all while wearing a clown suit.

His second feature, "Undertow" - which I watched last night - is anchored by the character of Chris, portrayed by Jaime Bell - only three years after he lit up the world with his elegantly goofy dances as the young Billy Elliot. His performance here, age 17, is blistering and incendiary one minute, then the picture of calm responsibility the next. Bell's Chris artfully combines the youthful rebelliousness of a sixteen year old raised, along with Tim, his sickly little brother, on a southern pig farm, whilst being the only real adult of the family since Dad (Dermot Mulroney), an emotionally crippled young widower, has taken his boys and departed the real world. A visit by Uncle It is one of the bravest, strongest, most vulnerable performances I've seen from any young actor.

Without giving anything away, a series of horrific events forces Chris to take his brother on the road to flee for their lives. Green deftly moves his story from the crummy, comfortable confines of the pig farm, into the woods, along the seaside and the great unknown, as Chris cares for, is limited by, and inspired by his brother.

It's a rough, beautiful movie featuring a score of haunting, mostly incidental music by Philip Glass. I did not know the name Nico Muhly when I first saw this in 2004, but now a fan of his music, couldn't suppress a smile seeing his name in the credits as having prepared the chorus featured for the soundtrack.

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