Henry Czerny's riveting performance as a lonely and misanthropic civil servant propels NOTES FROM UNDERGROUND, an impressive modern-day adaptation of Dostoevsky's novella about the confessions of a self-described "sick and spiteful" man.
In his cramped and dingy basement apartment, The Underground Man (Henry Czerny) sets up a video camera and, in an attempt to free himself of unpleasant memories, records a series of monologues in which he recalls past incidents when he did "ugly things." He is shown working as a low-level clerk at
the city's Building Dept., where he takes pleasure in tormenting architects and contractors who need his approval for their plans. He then goes to visit some well-off college acquaintances, and even though they openly despise him, he invites himself to a party they're throwing that night. To
humiliate him, they change the time of the party and purposely don't tell him about it, and when they finally arrive, he goes into a drunken tirade and insults them. They all leave him to go to a brothel, and he follows them with the intention of starting a fight, but instead winds up with a
prostitute named Liza (Sheryl Lee).
After having sex with Liza, The Underground Man is filled with a mix of pity and disgust and decides to toy with her emotions. He tells her that she is degrading herself working there and makes her cry. He then gives her his address and tells her to quit and come live with him, but later regrets
doing so, and dreads the idea that she might actually show up. When she does, he berates her for believing that he really cared about her, and he breaks down and starts crying. They spend the night together and make love, and in the morning he gives her a key to his apartment. When he comes home
from work, she has cleaned the apartment and tells him she has found a real job and a place to live near him. Horrified at the idea of having a real relationship with her, he throws her on the floor and brutally rapes her to prove how despicable he is. She leaves him and he runs after her in the
rain, but is unable to find her. Back in the present, he says that all of this happened years ago and that he hasn't seen her since, then shuts off the video camera.
NOTES FROM UNDERGROUND triumphs over its obviously low budget through incisive writing and extraordinary acting, particularly by Henry Czerny, who manages to make his character both pathetic and repulsive. He's a mass of contradictions--intelligent yet stuck in a deadening job, self-aware yet
unable to change his self-destructive behavior, desirous of human contact yet incapable of love--and Czerny fearlessly captures every nuance of the character, a man who can only express himself through domination and whose only true emotions are negative. Sheryl Lee is also very good as the
vulnerable prostitute searching for some warmth and compassion and writer-director Gary Alan Walkow's use of the video camera is a clever device which allows him to get inside The Underground Man's head, as he flashes back and provides voice-over for a series of stylized minimalist vignettes.
Some sections of the film are so broad that they border on caricature (such as the party with his four obnoxious yuppie lawyer "friends"), while others are admittedly weak fantasies where The Underground Man gets revenge on people who have wronged him; many others, however, are bitingly satirical.
Though Dostoevsky's novella was published in 1846, its themes dealing with the worst traits of human behavior are universal and timeless, and will resonate powerfully with anyone who has ever felt excluded or inferior or socially awkward. The film's strongest and most disturbing accomplishment is
how it makes the viewer confront the fact that the petty feelings of hate, spite, and sadism which destroy The Underground Man exist to some degree in everyone. (Profanity, nudity, sexual situations.)
Cast & Details See all »
- Released: 1995
- Rating: NR
- Review: Henry Czerny's riveting performance as a lonely and misanthropic civil servant propels NOTES FROM UNDERGROUND, an impressive modern-day adaptation of Dostoevsky's novella about the confessions of a self-described "sick and spiteful" man. In his cramped an… (more)