“Undertow” opens with its stalwart hero (Jamie Bell) smooching Kristen Stewart. By the next scene, (Click-click… Bang!) off he goes, trotting away from her gun-totting father. He dashes through the fields and through the woods. Way behind, the popping Pops hauls and calls the cops. When the chase caputs, the lad is caught, limping with a nail in his foot.

The runner’s name is Chris. Roaming and fooling around, this kid from Georgia wants escape. He’s trapped in a meager household with a staid dad (Dermot Mulroney) and a paint-eater brother (Devon Alan). His hours are humdrum, mainly hogged by minding hogs. But that’s about to change when an ominous character (Josh Lucas) drops by.

His name is Deel. He reeks of danger, even before we know he just came from prison. The father says he’s okay though. Deel’s his brother; he’s family. Therefore, he can live with them. He can take care of the boys while the dad is away.

But seriously, what is the real deal with Deel? The guy behaves so dubiously. Why did he go to prison? And why does he keeps asking about some mythic coins he’s supposed to inherit? Hmmm.

The movie can be pitched as a Southern gothic thriller. Deel is a villain, unafraid to use violence to get what he wants. To him, Chris and his younger brother are obstacles. They’re the targets (a.k.a. the ones we’ll be rooting for). But for a movie called “Undertow,” there is a hidden drama gushing beneath the thriller. If one looks deeper, one might recognize that the welcoming brother might be acting out of compunction. And the criminal brother is scary, not out of malice, but of desperation. Once you get inside their heads, there’s an anticipation of dread. Sure enough when the past is cut open, blood will be shockingly shed.

The most intriguing character for me is Deel. Josh Lucas provides him with a slimy, dodgy charm. Deel is not just downright shady, he’s also sly in the way he redirects conversations and pushes buttons (“We’re friends, right? I’m family.”). It’s a well-written role that elicits varying reactions from the audience. Another actor I liked is Jamie Bell. Walking barefoot and sporting a trucker hat, the English actor has come a long way from his “Billy Elliot” dancing shoes. Bell excels in these tough-it-out underdog roles. He is not a pretty boy by Hollywood standard. But the guy is a compelling actor; you’d rather read his face than admire it in some magazine cover.

The director of “Undertow” is David Gordon Green, who would release the comedy “The Pineapple Express” four years later. That film and “Undertow” differ widely in tone, but Green has a sense of locale for both films. In “The Pineapple Express,” I can still picture that marijuana lair in the final act. In “Undertow,” he finds odd beauty in decay via junkyards and abandoned buildings. I think he’s a bold director in his own subtle ways. Like its lead character, Green runs with what he’s got. I think he improvises without losing control. Sometimes he goes for the jugular by constricting us in suspense. Other times, he lets us breathe by pacing the movie in wide-eyed possibility. I sense him experimenting moods, finely tinkering moments. While I think he runs out of gas near the muddled end, “Undertow” gets a great mileage with him in tow.

Grade: A-

Milestone note: This movie review is the last entry in the “Project 25” series, which I started back in 2005. While it took long to finish, I found it a rewarding experience. You can see the complete list in the Challenges page.

Jamie Bell, Josh Lucas, Devon Alan, Kristen Stewart, Shiri Appleby, and Dermot Mulroney
Based on the story by
Lingard Jervey
Written by
David Gordon Green
Joe Conway
Directed by
David Gordon Green
Rated R for violence