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Undertow Reviews

David Gordon Green's grimy reimagining of NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955) pits a disaffected teenager and his fragile younger brother against their malevolent uncle. Set in a rural South suspended in time somewhere between now and then (even the opening credits echo regional exploitation features made in the '70s), it begins as hard-luck teenager Chris Munn (Jamie Bell) enrages his girlfriend's father, impales his instep on a rusty nail stuck through a board and winds up in jail, where he's an all-too-familiar face. Bailed out by his taciturn father, John (Dermot Mulroney), Chris returns in disgrace to a grim birthday party for his younger brother, Tim (Devon Alan), at the Munn family farm, a ramshackle riot of mud, tattered linens and rooting hogs. Restless and resentful that John favors the sickly Tim, a fey preteen who eats paint and dresses in fanciful rags that could have been looted from Jimi Hendrix's basement, Chris is ripe for seduction by the first charismatic creep who pays him mind. Enter Uncle Deel (Josh Lucas), who roars up unannounced in a grubby muscle car, wrapped in an aura of poisonous masculinity and festering resentment. The ne'er-do-well Deel takes advantage of John's brotherly hospitality, and wraps up their unfinished business by murdering his brother. The ostensible motive is a cache of gold coins that once belonged to their late father, but Deel is driven by something more atavistic than love of money: Wounded to the core by John's seduction of his girlfriend, Chris and Tim's late mother, Deel won't rest until he wipes out every trace of his brother's blood. Chris and Tim flee into the woods with the coveted coins but little else, and wander through the steamy countryside relying on the kindness of strangers and Chris' wits. Staying one step ahead of the vengeful Deel, Chris and Tim knit up the raveled strands of their own brotherly bond and experience both treachery and unexpected kindness. This southern-fried mess of poetic crime-movie cliches is redeemed by standout performances: Bell, who starred in Stephen Daldry's crowd-pleasing BILLY ELLIOT (2002), transforms himself utterly from English coal miner's son to sullen Southern teen, and Mulroney is surprisingly affecting as his father. But it's Lucas' slithery turn as Deel, which could easily have degenerated into an exercise in mustache-twirling villainy, that keeps you watching through the last turn in the dusty road.