It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
The two boys live in a rural area of Georgia with their father. The older, Chris, is quietly building a reputation as a troublemaker; the younger, Tim, is an odd kid who eats mud and paint and explains he is "organizing my books by the way they smell." Their father John mourns his dead wife and keeps his boys so isolated that on his birthday Chris complains, "We can't even have friends. What kind of a birthday party is it with just the three of us?"
A fourth arrives. This is Deel, John's brother, fresh out of prison and harboring resentment. "I knew your mom first -- she was my girl," he tells Chris. Deel and John's father had a horde of Mexican gold coins with a legend attached to them: They belonged to the ferryman on the River Styx. Deel believes he should have inherited half of the coins and believes John has them hidden somewhere around the place.
If this sounds as much like a Brothers Grimm tale as a plot, that is the intention of David Gordon Green, the gifted director of "Undertow." Still only 29, he has made three films of considerable power and has achieved what few directors ever do: After watching one of his films for a scene or two, you know who directed it. His style has been categorized as "Southern Gothic," but that's too narrow. I sense a poetic merging of realism and surrealism; every detail is founded on fact and accurate observation, but the effect appeals to our instinct for the mythological. This fusion is apparent when his characters say something that (a) sounds exactly as if it's the sort of thing they would say, but (b) is like nothing anyone has ever said before. I'm thinking of lines like, "He thinks about infinity. The doctor says his brain's not ready for it." Or "Can I carve my name in your face?"
"Undertow," like Green's "George Washington" (2001) and "All the Real Girls" (2003), takes place in a South where the countryside coexists with a decaying industrial landscape. We see not the thriving parts of cities, but the desolate places they have forgotten. His central characters are usually adolescents, vibrating with sexual feelings but unsure how to express them, and with a core of decency they are not much aware of.