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Director David Gordon Green, whose films include the critically acclaimed George Washington and All the Real Girls, is known as a filmmaker whose eschews traditional plot devices to focus on a film’s overall tone and visual impact. Mr. Green brings this talent, along with an actual plot, to his latest small film, Undertow. The story focuses on the relationships between two sets of brothers, John and Deel Munn and John’s sons, Chris and Tim. Told through the eyes of the patriarch of the clan, the films opens on what seems to be the rural south in the 1970s. John (Dermot Mulroney) has taken his kids and retreated to the woods after the death of his wife to live a quiet, peaceful existence. This is easier than it sounds since John’s eldest son Chris (Jamie Bell) is constantly getting into trouble with the law, and John’s youngest son Tim (Devon Alan) is suffering from a strange malady that compels him to eat inedible things, such as paint and mud, instead of food. Into this quietly brewing tempest stumbles Deel (Josh Lucas), John’s brother whose release from prison seems quite suspect. He’s after a set of gold coins the senior Munn had left his boys, and the lengths to which he’ll go to get them ultimately tears the family apart.

Part Southern gothic tale, part thriller, and part coming of age story, Mr. Green has many focuses in the film and doesn’t care to settle for the conventions of any of them. It’s a viewpoint that makes his films both incredibly good and incredibly frustrating. When people talk about how things always occur in certain ways in movies that would never happen in those ways in reality, they need to be shown one of Mr. Green’s films. The details of the film, from set design, to cinematography, to music, work perfectly together to evoke a feeling of ennui and excitement simultaneously. But watching Mr. Green’s films can be like watching paint dry. The adventures the boys share and the characters introduced to them seem irrelevant, taking away from the main plot. But the film takes pride in the showing us that life is, in fact, a series of events that can either be small and ordinary or big and extraordinary. Maybe there are parts of our daily lives that may seem boring or uninteresting to others, but does that mean they should not be shared?

The four principal actors, on whose performances the film rests, are uniformly good. Mr. Bell, a long way from his breakout role in Billy Elliot, not only masters a Southern accent quite well, he also manages to keep his character compelling in situations that might not seem so. The young actor who plays Tim, Devon Alan, is one of those rare finds—a child actor who never looks like he’s acting. For his age and the demands placed upon him in the role, he is quite spectacular. Mr. Lucas and Mr. Mulroney, each of whom seem to prefer juicy roles in smaller films punctuated by less demanding ones in larger ones, are right at home in the world Mr. Green has created. Mr. Lucas gets the flashier part as the bad seed, but the quiet intensity Mr. Mulroney brings to his roles makes the men evenly matched.

Overall, Undertow manages to be a compelling look at ordinary people caught up in situations great and small, and it does not make the viewer choose which is more important. At times trying, the film is at least honest in the way it portrays the predicaments of its characters. One’s enjoyment of the film will be tempered by whether or not they share Mr. Green’s cinematic sensibilities. While the film drags in spots, it is recommended viewing nonetheless.

Submitted 9 November 04. Posted 22 December 04.


Saw, the latest in a never ending line of serial killer films, is better than it has any right to be. The film’s budget looks to be about zero, and its cast is rounded out by names whose names you’d be hard pressed to remember once the credits roll. Sure, Saw stars Cary Elwes from The Princess Bride and Danny Glover from the Lethal Weapon “films,” but who else? And yet somehow, James Wan’s first feature film manages to get under your skin, and it’s twist ending, while completely implausible, is quite effective.

In a dark and dirty basement bathroom, two men find themselves chained at the ankle to pipes with a dead body lying between them. The men, Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Mr. Elwes) and Adam (Leigh Whannell, who co-wrote the script with Mr. Wan), somehow deduce that they are the latest victims of the Jigsaw Killer, a man whose calling card is the grizzly dilemma he makes his victims solve before they die. The dilemma before Adam and Dr. Gordon is this: Dr. Gordon must kill Adam, a man he has never met before, or else his wife and child will die. The men are given a cigarette, a gun, and two hacksaws at their disposal and 8 hours to accomplish the goal.

For a film about puzzles, it manages to cover every possible angle and still make absolutely no sense. It has plot holes and gaps in logic so big, semi trucks could easily drive through them. The twist ending would be the best example of both, but I won’t give it away here. As an obsessed cop, Danny Glover’s presence in the film is completely extraneous. His character has nothing essential to do with the film’s plot, so Mr. Glover is stuck with a thankless role where he chases people a lot. The same could be said for Monica Potter, whose role as Dr. Gordon’s wife consists of being tied up and yelling a lot. Every actor needs motivation for a role. In the case of both of these actors, my guess is that the motivation behind their performances was that the rent was due. The film also uses unnecessary flashbacks in order to distract from the fact that the film you’re watching is a two-character stage play with no scenery changes.

With all those points against it, Saw still manages to be better than one would expect. Mostly, that’s because what Mr. Wan makes up for an uneven script with tons of atmosphere. He has shot his first film with a mix of grays and greens that give it a gritty, dirty look. A flashback concerning one of Jigsaw’s other victims is truly creepy, simply due to the contraption Mr. Wan has the killer create to strap to her mouth. He has also created a real tension between Adam and Dr. Gordon that is lost when he chooses to break it with a flashback. I’ve read a large number of reviews that criticize Mr. Elwes performance as either too campy or too vapid, but I think he gives the performance required, no more and no less. As Adam, the wisecracking Mr. Whannell gets all the good lines, but the occasional humor helps to ease the tension.

Saw is not a great movie, but it’s a decent film if you are willing to take the good with the bad. I have been asked a couple of times by people if this film is any good, and I always answer with a half-hearted yes. Like an old house with fix-up potential, Saw is a film on which I am still undecided. It has a lot to recommend, but it’s got so many distractions, that it’s hard to give the filmmakers credit for what they manage to get right. If you’re just looking for entertainment on a Saturday night, you could do worse. Just don’t look too deep—you may not like what you see.

Submitted 10 November 04. Posted 23 December 04.