Undertow is an interesting film. It held my attention reasonably well throughout. It got decidedly mixed reviews, and I find I’m mixed on it as well.
I feel like it’s fairly close to a conventional movie overall, and a quite good one. Without a doubt, though, it has unconventional, artsy elements to it that would be totally out of place in a formulaic, mainstream movie. I’m still trying to wrap my head around those unconventional elements and decide if they enhance the film or detract from it.
On the “detract” side, I generally struggle with symbolic, non-literal, artsy bits in movies. I don’t appreciate them the way certain critics and intellectual filmgoers do. As to this movie specifically, the fact that it came so close to working as just a straightforward, suspense, thriller-type movie makes the cost of deviating from that more apparent. That is, there’s a certain kind of good movie lurking in a parallel universe that really only differs from this universe a modest amount, and a part of me kept wishing I was watching that movie instead of this one.
On the “enhance” side, the unconventional, artsy aspects of the movie never render it completely baffling. There are certain ambiguities—some, like certain things about the ending, almost surely intentional, and some likely a product of my just missing or misinterpreting things—but for the most part I was always able to follow the story. I never felt that frustration of going through the looking glass into something surreal and completely inscrutable, the way I feel watching more wholeheartedly artsy movies.
Furthermore, at a certain level I kind of admire a filmmaker taking some risks and wanting to be different. So in the case of certain elements that didn’t make the movie particularly more or less enjoyable to me (e.g., periodically a scene stops on a freeze frame while the audio continues as normal), the very fact that there’s something weird and different going on could be taken as a welcome bit of creativity.
So overall, it’s probably 80%-90% as understandable as a conventional movie, but then as it’s going along and I’m mostly liking it, something will happen that initially feels like a weakness—something like, “That doesn’t seem like something that character would say in that situation,” or, “There are too many coincidences here to be realistic,” or, “That doesn’t really fit the motivation I would expect that character to have there,” or “That was a bit obscure; I wish they had made it clearer what was supposed to be happening there”—but then I would think, “Well, but maybe that’s only a weakness relative to if this was supposed to be a conventional movie; insofar as it’s instead trying to make certain symbolic points, or fit a vaguely fairy tale structure, or whatever, probably other standards are appropriate,” but I’m not in tune enough with this kind of movie to really know what those other standards are.
Anyway, as we piece together gradually over the course of the film, mostly the first half, two young adult brothers had a falling out over one of them marrying a girl who had been the other one’s girlfriend (and possibly over other things too). The aggrieved brother (Deel) committed some crime that is left unspecified but apparently was something pretty serious and violent as he was imprisoned for a long period. The free brother (John) goes through various traumas—not only conflicting with a brother and losing him to prison, but his wife (Deel’s ex-girlfriend) dying and leaving him a single father of two boys (Chris and Tim), his and Deel’s father dying, and his boys both developing significant emotional or behavioral problems—and ends up moving out to the sticks to become a pig farmer in obscurity, relinquishing most or all of his ties to his past and trying to start over with a different form of life.
When the father died, John helped himself to a substantial quantity of gold that he and Deel knew their father had. He seems to have spent almost none of it, however, as he is apparently hesitant to use it either because he has some vague notion of it being cursed (maybe he associates it with the death of his father or with some guilt over getting it all when it really should have been split between him and Deel), or because he’d rather build this new life on his own and succeed on his own and just have the gold as an emergency fallback, or both.
Chris is about 15 or 16. He’s a hard worker, a bright kid, has some emotional depth to him, and does not come across as malicious, but he’s also a “troubled teen” prone to various scattershot acts of rebellion and attention-seeking, like breaking windows and getting into fights. Tim is a quiet, sensitive 10 year old, with some kind of mental illness or eating disorder that causes him to compulsively eat dirt and paint and various things to make himself sick—I guess the same kind of self-harm tendencies as people who cut themselves with razor blades.
Each is accepting of the flaws of the other, and there is a strong bond between them.
Then Deel, fresh out of prison, shows up at their door. John is understandably wary of him and of what he’s doing there, but after talking to him for a bit he decides that he is open to a reconciliation and that he would like to at least try to reestablish a more brotherly relationship with Deel and to accept Deel into his family as an uncle to the boys.
The problem is, he lies to Deel about the gold—telling him that it was stolen when their father died and so he never had it—and Deel quickly finds out it’s a lie. Not to mention, the bad blood of the past—fighting over a girl and such—has really never gone away, plus prison has hardened him into a criminal who is comfortable with violence and won’t accept being disrespected if he wasn’t that way already.
Given how volatile that makes the situation, it’s no surprise that before long they quarrel over the gold and Deel murders John, with Chris’s knife. Chris, fearing that he’ll get blamed, grabs the gold and flees with Tim. Deel is in hot pursuit, since he wants the gold, and he wants to eliminate the only two witnesses to his crime.
Much of the movie, then, is the story of Chris and Tim on the lam. Chris does whatever he can to enable them to survive—seeking work or at least odd jobs, shoplifting, etc. Yes, they have all that gold, but they don’t use it. I think they too have some sense that it’s cursed, that there’s something inappropriate or unsafe about using it, not to mention there are the practical issues of how would a couple of kids convert stolen gold into food and lodging and the things they need? Where could they go to cash it in, without getting robbed, turned in to the police, etc.?
They have a series of adventures with various folks they encounter along the way (some of which I found hard to follow, especially that girl they hook up with toward the end). And always Deel is closing in on them, seemingly on the verge of exercising his wrath upon them.
The movie is set in a kind of Faulknerian South, with lots of dirt, rural squalor, poor people, ignorant people, etc. Both the social setting and the physical surroundings are meticulously and skillfully depicted, in Winter’s Bone fashion. Not all the people are evil, per se, but there’s a generally creepy and backward feeling to this movie.
Another striking thing about Undertow is that there are multiple scenes that are quite gruesome and hard to watch. They don’t just mention or suggest certain gross things, but pretty much stick them in your face, from a character getting his throat slit, to a character jumping off a roof barefoot onto a nail sticking out of a board and having it go all the way through his foot, to little Tim scraping off old dirty paint and rust and other such disgusting substances and swallowing them.
My initial reaction to the film upon its ending was that it was probably a narrow thumbs down for me. But in its way it’s an intelligent and skillfully done film, and having thought about it more, maybe in recognition of that I’d switch that to a very narrow thumbs up. I’d give it a much more favorable rating if either, a, it had stuck to being a straight-up suspense thriller (because, as I say, it has the makings of a very good one) and dispensed with the artsy elements, or, b, I was the kind of filmgoer that could more fully appreciate this species of artsiness.