on October 22, 2004 by Michael Tunison
The gritty coming-of-age story "Undertow" ambitiously sets out to be one of those rare modern films that blend realistic, character-driven drama with the narrative tension of a thriller. But despite some fine stretches of writing and strong performances from its nearly all-male cast, director David Gordon Green's follow-up to the acclaimed "George Washington" ultimately stumbles into the pitfalls of both genres--the predictability of a formulaic suspenser, and the draggy pace of a character study that fails to catch fire.

"Billy Elliot's" Jamie Bell plays Chris, an angst-ridden teen living a cheerless Faulknerian existence on a hardscrabble Southern hog farm with his sick kid brother (Devon Alan from "Simon Birch") and stern but loving single dad ("About Schmidt's" Dermot Mulroney). They're barely surviving to begin with, and things go from grim to worse when Dad's ex-con brother (Josh Lucas from "In the Bedroom") arrives with a secret agenda that has "family tragedy" written all over it. Bad things happen to good people, and the boys are soon on the run--a dangerous but liberating experience that frees Chris up for some much-needed emotional growth.

Green tells his story with sensitivity and novelistic attention to detail that recalls the famous work directed by "Undertow" producer Terrence Malick, "Badlands." But the leisurely style that effectively roots the characters in a convincing world early on starts to work against the film when things snap into a more plot-driven thriller mode and the audience gets ahead of the twists, waiting for the slow-moving characters to catch up.

On the upside, the cranked-down pacing allows all four of the key actors dig deeply into their parts--including Lucas, who one might think would be bored of playing sneering, edgy heavies by now. And the underappreciated Mulroney turns in a memorably complex, haunted performance that hopefully will be seen by many a casting director. Starring Jamie Bell, Josh Lucas, Devon Alan and Dermot Mulroney. Directed by David Gordon Green. Written by David Gordon Green and Joe Conway. Produced by Lisa Muskat, Terrence Malick and Edward R. Pressman. A United Artists release. Drama. Rated R for violence. Running time: 107 min

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