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Indie upstart David Gordon Green co-wrote and directed this likably oddball and almost unclassifiable 2004 drama/thriller that skirts the edges of familiar genres but never commits in any one direction. Jamie Bell (Billy Elliot) is excellent as Chris Munn, a troublemaking teen frustrated by both the limitations of his backwoods Georgia home and the constant disapproval of his widower father, John (Dermot Mulroney). The Munn routine — feeding the pigs, working on their rickety home — is interrupted when John's estranged brother Deel (Josh Lucas) arrives for a surprise visit. The sincere John, already spent by Chris's chronic mischief and his younger son's "rough stomach," invites Deel to stay, hoping to heal the lingering bad blood in the family, but Deel, fresh out of prison, has another objective in mind. Undertow begins with a stylish (and painfully unforgettable) opening sequence that evokes raucous teen mischief flicks, and then appears to settle into a quirky slice-of-rural-life groove before angling again into thriller territory, and ultimately evolves into an Badlands-like road adventure (Terrence Malick is credited as a producer). From the start, Green, who is only 30, exudes supreme confidence in his control of this untamed movie, his third feature (including his 2000 festival hit George Washington), making Undertow's unpredictable turns feel natural even when they beg belief, and adding just enough touches of style to augment the narrative, but never so much as to distract from it. His combination of 1970s-style naturalistic docudrama with occasional postmodern editing flourishes is bracingly effective, and Philip Glass' score captures well the film's off-kilter but serious accent. Bell is not the only actor in the film to excel, with Mulroney in fine form, and the typically engaging Lucas giving yet another intense and charming performance. All that Undertow lacks, really, is an ending, and as the movie winds toward some kind of conclusion it becomes ever more precious, with a couple of ungainly monologues and a turn or two that slice wide of credibility. But Green's vision is so strong and engaging, and Bell is such an empathetic presence, that the picture survives its few missteps along its refreshingly unusual path. MGM presents Undertow in a solid anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Green and Bell chat along in a very listenable commentary, during which Green aptly describes the tone of the film as his attempt to mesh his boyhood favorites The Goonies and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The disc also includes a half-hour behind-the-scenes featurette which highlights some of the crew's run-ins with locals at their rural locations, as well as two deleted scenes and a trailer. Keep-case.
—Gregory P. Dorr

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