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Cinema Signal:

A Southern Family

. "Undertow"

Sometimes we can't escape our past. However far we may travel, however remote the land we occupy, the past has a way of catching up. Sometimes. In this intense family drama set in the deep south, a father takes his two boys away from a troubled family and raises them on an isolated hog farm in the woods, trying to teach them discipline and responsibility.

That father is John Munn (Dermot Mulroney) and, though he's none too happy about the trouble his older boy Chris (Jamie Bell) gets into with a pretty girl of the town, he's more concerned that he'll do his chores while he, dad, goes off to work.

Nobody's aware that younger boy Tim (Devon Alan) is seriously ill with an eating disorder, one that can only become more and more serious as he declines food in favor of such things as the consumption of paint and mud which, apparently, look better to him. There's probably a medical term for this ailment but the kid is never diagnosed.

The first sign of some kind of normality is cake celebration of Tim's birthday, but it's just the three of them, signifying a hermit-like existence with schooling no part of the family plan. What's John Munn hiding from?

The answer to that comes with the arrival of his brother Deel, a lean, strong and charming type driving a car that seems mighty hot out on these country lanes. For some unexplainable reason, he easily convinces John that he's perfectly willing to let bygones be bygones, is not carrying a grudge for the issues of the past, such as finding John with his girlfriend some years back, and he's welcomed into the household on the basis that John needs someone to help him raise the boys and see after them while brother John is at work.

"By the way," Deel asks John one evening, "where are the gold coins Dad left for us to divide up?" John may lie about them to his brother, and his brother may seem to accept the irony of their being confiscated by the county when Dad died, but when Deel trolls for hints about the gold collection from little Tim, and conducts a thorough search, and when he finds them, the revenge Deel has been dreaming about all the time he was in prison asserts itself with extreme violence.

The boys barely escape and the second half of the film is about running to avoid their uncle's lethal wrath.

The style in which this sometimes suspenseful story is told is direct and down to earth. The power of greed, of a sly charm in the interests of criminal mentality and paying the consequences of doing wrong are all well expressed in a well written and honestly portrayed script. The problem with the work of writer Joe Conway and co-writer, director David Gordon Green is in a concept that, for all its intensity, gets wearisome.

A little too much simplicity; a little too much repetition; a, perhaps, too modest a production... pretty soon it adds up to disengagement. This is very apt arthouse fare which deserves attention for many of the qualities that limit it. But it offers fine characterization and natural performances that many a higher concept film might envy.

The standout is Josh Lucas' who comes up with the criminal you do not want to cross--ever. A scary guy who knows exactly how much to mask his intentions with deception and guile. It's a good thing his frame of reference is confined to the family. You wouldn't want to tangle with him in a wider context. His menace brings to mind Robert DeNiro's Max Cady in 1991's "Cape Fear."

If it were in print, the story elements and their intensities would make the subject a sustainably fascinating study for a short story.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Devon Alan and Jamie Bell
Two boys caught up in family vengeance

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