Dir. David Gordon Green. US. 2004. 107mins.

An intoxicating auteur spin on Southern Gothic, Undertow is a conventional adventurestory - good boys, bad uncle, hidden gold - that is told in a mostunconventional way. To say its his most commercial film yet isn't saying much,as the qualities that make it a Green film are the very qualities that willlimit its commercial prospects: genre films that set their own course ratherthan follow the rules are asking for trouble.

After its Toronto world premiere, the film will have asolid run on the festival circuit while finding a home in urban markets wheresuch liberties are excused in the name of art and experimentation. One thing iscertain: with this performance Jamie Bell's career prospects in the US are greatlyenriched; mastering the accent and dialect - Green is apparently a stickler -the young British actor is never less than riveting.

With echoes stretching back to Cape Fear and Night Of TheHunter with a touch of Terrence Malick's Badlands (Malick served as producer on the film) and an etherealPhilip Glass score composed of banjo samplings and slide steel, the film humswith cicada, and drips with sweat.

All of it is delivered in what has become Green'strademark style: with a sense of the unpredictability of life, and the refusalof circumstance to behave seriously just because human beings are.

When first we meet teenage troublemaker Chris (Bell), he's on the runfrom the shotgun-toting father of a local girl. In a tell-tale Green moment,the fleeing Chris jumps from a rooftop onto a plank with a long upturned nail.He continues his flight ahowl with the plank attached like some stigmatic skion his foot.

Later, as Chris hobbles out of the police station, having been bailedout yet again by his forlorn father (Mulroney), an officer hands Chris theblood-stained plank as though it were personal property.

Chris and 10-year-old brother Tim live with their father in the Middleof Nowhere, Georgia. John is a widower, who clearly favours his younger sonwhile working the older to the breaking point. Then, in a series ofeconomically scripted scenes that would be put any thriller to shame, Green andco-writer Joe Conway introduce the menacing figure of Deel (Lucas), John'sex-con brother, establish his goal (some gold coins their father once stole),establish his grievance (not only did John marry his girl, Deel is the realfather of Chris) and establish his method. Soon Chris and Tim are on the run,with the loot in a sock and the shirts on their backs.

One senses that Green, having created an opening actof such terrific power and tension, decided to subvert the genre's expectationby slowing the pace, like a free verse poet refusing an obvious rhyme.

The rest of the film is a cat-and-mouse game but inslow-motion. Not only do the brothers find the refuge they seek, they settleinto a rhythm, only then to be disturbed by Deel. Green presses his luck byrepeating this process not once but twice before relenting and delivering asatisfying comeuppance to the appropriate address.

The big hurdle will be with critics: within a genresetting, flourishes that might have been praised in George Washington or All TheReal Girls may here be dismissed as self-indulgent. On the flip side, thefilm could be seen as a natural progression for a director who won a Sundanceprize for "Emotional Truth".

Every character rings true, although Lucas slidestoward caricature as the chase loses pace. The moments of respite for the boysare opportunities to explore other lives and subvert the genre's cliches - aswhen Chris and Tim approach a frolicking black couple and offer to work forfood.

Still, considerations of context have never sold movietickets. This is a bit of muscle-flexing from a vastly talented filmmaker. Itwill widen his fan base and leave the initiated waiting for more.

Prod co: ContentFilm, United Artists, Sunflower Prod
Int'l sales: Content Int'l
Exec prods: John Schmidt,Alessandro Camon
Lisa Muskat, Terrence Malick, Edward R. Pressman
Scr: Green, Joe Conway
Cine: Tim Orr
Prod des: Richard A. Wright
Ed: Zene Baker, Steve Gonzales
Mus: Philip Glass
Main cast: Jamie Bell, JoshLucas, Devon Alan, Dermot Mulroney