Claire (Laura Gordon, ‘Saw V’), a photojournalist, is married to AFL player and mentor Dan (Rob Collins, TV’s ‘Cleverman’ and ‘The Wrong Girl’), and is grieving the loss of their stillborn child. One day, by chance, she spots Dan at a roadside motel with a teenage girl, Angie (Olivia DeJonge, ‘The Visit’, ‘Better Watch Out’). After digging deeper, Claire finds out that Angie is pregnant and an off-the-rails local footie hero (Josh Helman, ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’, ‘X-Men: Apocalypse’) is involved. Slowly, Claire begins to ingratiate herself into Angie’s life.
Written and directed by award-winning filmmaker Miranda Nation in her feature film debut, ‘Undertow’ isn’t really about football culture (although it is a big plot point) - it’s a film about the stark trauma of losing a child, coupled with an increasingly irrational obsession, plus some psychosexual themes (see: everything from Darren Aronofsky’s ‘Black Swan’ to Melanie Laurent’s ‘Breathe’).
‘Undertow’ features a lot of nudity, shot in a distinctly non-titillating way. The female form is presented without varnish or soft focus, the camera steadily capturing Claire’s body, post-pregnancy, as well as Angie’s slight form and swollen belly. Claire and Angie may not be engaged in a sexual relationship, but the instant physical and emotional bond between the pair occasionally dips into some very grey areas, all the better to pack on the well-earned emotion and tension.
In Shakespeare, water is symbolic in terms of crossing a rubicon, and of transformation. In a lot of cultures it’s where you go to meet the gods, because they emerge from water. These things played on my mind as I watched ‘Undertow’, in which water is a recurring and potent symbol of life, death, rebirth, and release. Water hedges Claire in as she depressingly photographs decaying marine life on the beach. Water immerses Claire during her most traumatised and obsessive moments. Waves crash onto the shore during a climactic sexual encounter. Water engulfs the characters and the viewers during a drowning scene that becomes almost womb-like. Blood pours out of characters as if they were willing themselves to change states.
Claire and Angie may not be engaged in a sexual relationship, but the instant physical and emotional bond between the pair occasionally dips into some very grey areas, all the better to pack on the well-earned emotion and tension.
Director of photography Bonnie Elliot (the anxiety-inducing ‘These Final Hours’) captures some beautiful shots of Geelong’s factory-dotted skyline, overgrowth of scrubland, pristine coastline and its urban sprawl, with a football field at its centre like a religious monument. A few of the locations are truly inspired, such as the weirdly Las Vegas-like The Sphinx Hotel and the abandoned buildings where Claire photographs Angie, with giant walls covered in graffiti of nude women.
Laura Gordon juggles grief, desperation and an underlying decency as Claire, while Rob Collins embodies the kind of pseudo-nice guy who puts aside his own morality to "help out a mate". Josh Helman, with his furrowed brow and duck-like walk, looks the part of an irresponsible sportsman (even if his role is underwritten), but the standout is Olivia DeJonge. Coarse, sexual, unlikeable, but vulnerable, this is a role unlike any she has played in her career to date.
As a first film, ‘Undertow’ is an impressive debut. It's a thoughtful, well-shot psychological drama that uses the natural beauty of its coastal setting to provide scope for symbolic interpretation and pull viewers down into its dark depths.