A thriller pared to the absolute basics, UNDERTOW is an insignificant affair, despite the participation filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow (NEAR DARK, STRANGE DAYS) as co-writer.
Drifter Jack Ketchum (Lou Diamond Phillips) runs off the road in a forest during a thunderstorm. He awakens at gunpoint in the secluded cabin lair of violent recluse Lyle Yates (Charles Dance), who resides with his abused young bride Willie (Mia Sara), acquired at age 13 to pay her father's debts.
Despite a hurricane evacuation in progress, paranoid Lyle refuses to leave. Instead, he and Jack play games of macho one-upsmanship, utilizing the cabin's supply of bladed weapons and beartraps. Willie is attracted to the prisoner/houseguest, and Jack tries to persuade her to flee with him in
Lyle's truck. Lyle grows more unstable as the storm rages, and Jack mashes him with the truck. But Willie chooses her crazy husband over her new lover, and Jack can only spin his wheels in frustration in the muddy road. By daybreak the sky clears, but Jack knows a showdown is nigh. He and Lyle
maul each other until the dying mountain man shows some mercy and lets Willie and the interloper escape, as a giant moonshine boiler in the cellar explodes.
UNDERTOW, which premiered on cable TV, seems like a troglodytic cousin of Roman Polanski's KNIFE IN THE WATER (1962), another sinister three-character piece that explored tricky power-plays of personal relationships and dangerous passions in a confined space (in that case, a sailboat). There the
resemblance ends (although, despite its American setting, UNDERTOW was also shot in Eastern Europe). Unsubtle and unappealing, UNDERTOW opens on a dark and stormy night and stays at that pitch throughout. It may be intentional that Ketchum, in his own callow way, is little better than lunatic
Lyle; the youth's opening voice-over indicates he's on the run from a bad situation involving a sheriff's daughter, and watching Willie torn between these two possessive men is more depressing than anything else, lyrical sex scenes notwithstanding. Eric Red's direction emphasizes Wellesian low
angles, too much slow-motion, and archival lightning footage. The pieces come together only late in the action, in stock shock scenes when Lyle, supposedly killed, keeps coming back; such is Dance's primal force that one could well believe Lyle has that much raw meanness in him. (Violence,substance abuse, profanity, sexual situations, nudity, adult situations)
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- Released: 1996
- Rating: R
- Review: A thriller pared to the absolute basics, UNDERTOW is an insignificant affair, despite the participation filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow (NEAR DARK, STRANGE DAYS) as co-writer. Drifter Jack Ketchum (Lou Diamond Phillips) runs off the road in a forest during a th… (more)