Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Underneath

The Underneath, directed by Steven Soderbergh and released in 1995, is a modern film noir in which style trumps a lack of substance. Michael Chambers (Peter Gallagher) is returning home to Texas for the marriage of his mother (Anjanette Comer) to a kindly armored car driver named Ed (Paul Dooley). We don't know where Michael has been, but a series of flashbacks reveal the reason he left. Michael was a compulsive gambler whose habit cost him his life in Texas and relationship with Rachel (Alison Elliott), an actress who was willing to put up with a surprising amount of the ups and downs caused by Michael's betting. With his habit apparently under control, Michael is back home and in need of a job much to the displeasure of his cop kid brother (Adam Trese). The action of the film involves Michael's attempt to reconnect with Rachel while avoiding the wrath of her husband Tommy (william Fichtner), a club owner who doesn't need much persuasion to help plan the bank robbery that is the centerpiece of The Underneath.

Steven Soderbergh co-wrote the screenplay for The Underneath (with Daniel Fuchs) under a pseudonym, and almost from the very first blue-tinted shot the movie feels like the work of a someone who views conventional narrative as a starting point. There are three distinct timelines: the day of the bank robbery, Michael's return home and eventual employment by Ed's armored car company, and flashbacks to Michael's gambling days. The structure gives some energy to the material, which otherwise would have seemed pulpish and ordinary. There's no effort expended to make a probably miscast Peter Gallagher's Michael likeable or especially interesting; the character is defined by his needs, whatever they are. After the robbery there's a long in scene in which Michael receives a succesion of visitors in hospital, and we experience them in the same way Michael does as he floats in an out of consciousness. Why is the owner (Joe Don Baker) of the armored car business so happy? Will Michael's suspicious brother turn him in? Finally a stranger comes into the room at Michael's request "just to talk", and both a now-lucid Michael and the audience start to really question their perceptions. The scene is a simple but marvelous exercise in controlled tension.

The Underneath is a minor work in Soderbergh's career, but one that bears the promise of the good things that were yet to come. Rewatching the film two decades after its release is a fun exercise for anyone looking for examples what a great director can do for genre material.

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