The Underneath

Steven Soderbergh's THE UNDERNEATH fuses steamy ironic elements of his debut feature, SEX, LIES, AND VIDEOTAPE, with a wide-screen film noir tale of betrayal and greed based on the 1949 Robert Siodmak picture CRISS CROSS. Soderbergh, under the pseudonym Sam Lowry (the name of the Jonathan Pryce character in Terry Gilliam's BRAZIL), shares screenwriting...read more

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Steven Soderbergh's THE UNDERNEATH fuses steamy ironic elements of his debut feature, SEX, LIES, AND VIDEOTAPE, with a wide-screen film noir tale of betrayal and greed based on the 1949 Robert Siodmak picture CRISS CROSS. Soderbergh, under the pseudonym Sam Lowry (the name of the

Jonathan Pryce character in Terry Gilliam's BRAZIL), shares screenwriting credit with CRISS CROSS scenarist Daniel Fuchs for this moody tale, moved from Los Angeles to Austin, Texas.

Onetime chronic gambler Michael Chambers (Peter Gallagher) is back in town, with an eye toward reuniting with ex-wife Rachel (Alison Elliott), now linked to Tommy Dundee (William Fichtner), a ruthless nightclub owner. Chambers's mother (Anjanette Comer) is about to marry Ed (Paul Dooley), who

happens to work for an armored-car company, an affiliation Chambers finds hard to resist once Ed offers him a job there. Meanwhile, Rachel tempts fate by hooking up with Chambers again. When Dundee finds out, Chambers, to save his skin, suggests a robbery, an inside job which he can engineer as

driver of the armored vehicle. Tommy agrees, but the heist does not go smoothly, clearing the decks for some fast and shifty maneuvering by all three principals.

THE UNDERNEATH is hardly a movie to be watched casually. Its complex narrative, replete with recurring flashbacks, continually challenges viewer concentration. Perhaps to provide a counterpoint, but also with a bow to Siodmak, Soderbergh includes a remarkable centerpiece in which a hospitalized

Chambers, coming down off painkillers, struggles to separate reality from distorted imagery and to distinguish between those who would help and those who would harm him. Cinematographer Elliot Davis's shifting of colors here is as subtle as it is disquieting. Moviegoers expecting the relentless

pace of big-budget action pictures may be turned off by this sequence, and, indeed, by THE UNDERNEATH's character-driven plot, which veers repeatedly into psychological explorations and stylistic flourishes.

Gallagher brings intelligence and charisma to the part of Chambers, expertly distilling that character's devious charm. Relative newcomer Elliott is a major discovery, alluring and enigmatic as Rachel, whose next move is anybody's guess. Fichtner creates a magnetic villain in Tommy, one whose

cold-blooded fury is never far from the surface. Adam Trese, as Chambers's brother, David, captures the simmering anger and frustration of a sibling who plays by the rules only to be overshadowed in his mother's affections by his less deserving brother. Veterans Dooley and Joe Don Baker add class

to the proceedings, as does Comer, fondly remembered for her youthful appearances in THE LOVED ONE and THE APPALOOSA.

THE UNDERNEATH is more cerebral but no less eccentric than the melodramas it arguably resembles. Soderbergh takes considerable chances here and succeeds with a smart, unnerving thriller that handsomely rewards the viewer attentive to its twisting chronicle of avarice, deception and envy.

(Violence, profanity, adult situations.)

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  • Released: 1995
  • Rating: R
  • Review: Steven Soderbergh's THE UNDERNEATH fuses steamy ironic elements of his debut feature, SEX, LIES, AND VIDEOTAPE, with a wide-screen film noir tale of betrayal and greed based on the 1949 Robert Siodmak picture CRISS CROSS. Soderbergh, under the pseudonym Sa… (more)

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