This will be appearing in Film For the Soul's Counting Down the Zeroes project Saturday, August 1st. Enjoy.
When I think of the great opening scenes in film history I think of Argento’s Suspiria, Scorsese’s Raging Bull, Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, and of course, the greatest of them all, Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil. In addition to those masterpiece openings, I would add the more modern addition of David Gordon Green’s opening to his brilliant 2004 thriller Undertow. In six minutes Green gives us a narrator introducing the story in typical oral mythology fashion (“this is their story, as it was told to me”); his usual in-the-moment, painfully real dialogue ( We see two teenagers presumably in the middle of a tryst as the boy says: “We should disappear. Go someplace where we can see everything” And the girl replies: “Let me see your knife…can I carve my name in your face?”); and pretty much every editing trick in the Final Cut Pro bag of tricks. All while being accompanied by Philip Glass’ eerie score that sets the perfect mood for the rest of the picture. It’s a perfect way for Green to begin his film: he wants Undertow to be a myth, he sets us up the way a master storyteller would, and visually he gives us one of the best pieces of character development I’ve ever seen. It’s an incredibly entertaining, beautifully edited and orchestrated first six minutes, and it’s one of the best openings to a movie that I’ve ever seen (clip is supplied below).
The film plays as a myth, more specifically a myth about the Munn family and some gold coins that act as the catalyst for, what else, murder. Here Green’s Southern Gothic look is a perfect fit for the type of story he’s set out to make; his film exists in this fable (to borrow a word used to describe the film by the brilliant Ed Howard) world, and the allusions to Laughton’s Night of the Hunter are just as obvious as his allusions to the fables where children must set out on an odyssey of discovery, growing up too fast and alluding danger along the way.
Why are these kids growing up too fast and on the road? Because their estranged (and strange) Uncle Deel (Josh Lucas who plays the role with maniacal glee) is in town visiting their dad John (played by Dermot Mulroney) inquiring about a job on the new Munn family farm (Chris and Tim are the kids, and they hate the farm, but their dad insists on them remaining alienated from city life). We come to find out the history of the Munn family – a certain affliction that bothers Tim, the death of their mother, and we get some insights into why John prefers giving it a go at farming when it seems that he’s never done it before – but more specifically we begin to see the history between Deel and John, and why there is such bitterness between them. This all eventually boils over and leads to an intense, and ultimately deadly, confrontation about some gold coins that may or may not be hidden in the house. From that point on the film is an eerie thriller. It’s an unconventional one, too, especially in the way that Green stages most of the chases and scare moments in daylight, creating an unsettling feeling akin to what John Carpenter did in his boogeyman masterpiece Halloween.
The film is not just a thriller, there’s a lot lurking beneath the surface – the film is also about the Munn kids (Chris and his odd little brother Tim) and their journey, but more specifically Undertow is about forgotten kids. In their great series The Conversations, Ed Howard and Jason Bellamy talk extensively about this theme of kids just "wandering around" in Undertow. This gets at the larger theme in the film which is that kids need a home, and more specifically the displacement, and the fractures lives/journey of the Munn kids. When Chris and Tim construct their house in the junkyard Chris places a mug that reads “Home Sweet Home” on the dash of the car they’re sleeping in. Sadly, at that moment, that seems to be the most suitable house they'll find (they'll find themselves in other houses, too, along their journey). The junkyard, though, acts as a perfect Gothic setting for the film, it also acts as a nice metaphor, showing how displaced these kids are, seen as nothing more than bits to be sent to a scrap heap. This is later made even more obvious by Green when the Munn kids find brief refuge and friendship at a hideaway inhabited by other displaced kids.
The junkyard also acts as a metaphor for how “chopped-up”, or fragmented, their lives have become, and the affect that can have on two kids. The junkyard is just as compartmentalized as their lives, and made me think about the Munn kids and the stages of their life that is shown to the audience, or talked about by the characters. Chris (Jamie Bell) and Tim used to live in the city when their mom was still alive (one stage of their life), their mother dies (second), dad moves them to a farm (third), Deel comes into Chris’ life and reveals that his mom was actually his girlfriend first…hinting at the fact that Deel is probably Chris’ biological father (fourth), their dad dies (fifth), they go on the run and find a home at the junkyard…a momentary safe haven (sixth), they come upon a compound where other displaced kids live (seventh), their chase ends with Deel and Chris involved in an intense fight where Deel eventually is stabbed and left to die on the bank of the river (eighth), and the film ends with the both of them being rescued by their grandparents (ninth stage). My own arbitrary organizing there shows that they go through nine significant changes in their young lives.
Their journey is broken up into stages, or continuing with the myth idea, chapters of the story. So it’s apt that they take refuge midway through their journey at a place that is the epitome of compartmentalization. The ending is befitting of a myth, too, as Green ends his film with a deus ex machina, but we accept that as a viewer because we’re always aware that what we’re watching is myth. The stages of the film and the set piece of the junkyard also act as a reminder that Green’s film is a pastiche of some of the films that have certainly inspired him: Badlands, Days of Heaven, and the aforementioned Night of the Hunter. Green is above simple thievery, though, as each allusion helps punctuate his own ideas, making Undertow the best films of 2004.
Green’s pretty comfortable, as I mentioned earlier, at throwing every trick in the book in that opening six minuets, but he allows the film to pretty much play out without barely any camera trickery at all. He still adds in some nice editing touches, but nothing as overt as the opening. He also continues to showcase those great scenes he's known for where the viewer happens upon a conversation in medias res, and we hear all kinds of interesting things that real people would say; however, Green isn’t going for the affect his George Washington or All the Real Girls went for, he’s content keeping Undertow within the boundaries of the thriller and myth. Whether or not that hurts his film is an interesting debate as I think this is Green’s best film, and is his most underrated (or overlooked), and I think too often, and unfairly, people omit Undertow when talking about Green’s triumphs as a director.
It’s no surprise Terrence Malick produced this film. His influences are just as evident here as the influence of Night of the Hunter, and it’s refreshing to see another filmmaker, who like Malick, doesn’t just film something beautiful for beauty’s sake. There is a purpose to cinematographer Tim Orr’s shots, and even though they are beautifully framed and conceived, they aren’t showy, blow-away shots that exist only to draw attention to how good the filmmakers are. These are shots that are designed to evoke mood – visually-poetic conceits that conjure up the danger and horrors found in the original Brothers Grimm stories – shots that always tell us something about the narrative, and help move the story along.
Undertow sits comfortably at the top of my list for best films of 2004. It’s a refreshing thriller that embraces the ethereal qualities found in myths or fables, giving the viewer great locations (the opening six minuets of the film, the junkyard where Chris and his brothers seek refuge) that are feasts for the eyes, and scenes of surprising warmth (the scene where Chris finds out that two waifish girls have tried to steal his coins, and instead of lunging at them in anger, he looks upon them with empathy as if to say: “we come from the same place”.) that showcase Green’s narrative skills in addition to his extremely creative and poetic eye. Undertow is David Gordon Green’s masterpiece, and the best film of 2004.