Saturday, March 12, 2011

Review: Underneath (1995)

This is much closer to what one would consider Modern Soderbergh -- color saturation, non-linear storytelling inspired heavily by Point Blank, time-saving jump-cuts. Instead of a gradual ascent we can clearly see a watermark for techniques that Soderbergh will use throughout the rest of his career. It makes it all the more tragic that the movie isn’t very good.

Through two different timelines, we learn of Michael Chambers’ (Peter Gallagher) past as a compulsive gambler and his burgeoning future as a co-conspirator in a bank robbery. Think about every heist film’s inside man and this is his story. Cornered by a desperate set of circumstances, Michael decides his only recourse is to help his ex-girlfriend’s crime lord boyfriend rob the bank Michael and his father-in-law go to sometimes so that he can take the money and save his ex-girlfriend from the crime lord’s clutches. Surprising revelations intersect with the plans too late in the game to avoid, causing predictably tragic outcomes.

Tarantino’s meteoric rise with Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs opened the flood gates to this type of modern gangster film, or Modern Noir with New Wave sensibilities. It’s why Danny Boyle got to make Shallow Grave, Paul Thomas Anderson got to make Hard Eight, why Suicide Kings exists and why Soderbergh got to do this (and later Out of Sight and the Limey). Basically, diverting strengths away from directors with other schemes in mind.

Soderbergh hides a weak story better in other cases. There is fun to be had in piecing together a linear narrative and seeing parallels in Michael’s psychology past and present; otherwise, there are no compelling reasons to like him or to empathize with the tragedy of his life because the story is funneled towards a foregone conclusion. There always seems to be a more sensible way out, or at the very least quicker way to get to his goal. As such, we are watching a man who cannot escape failure by “sheer velocity of mischief,” like in other movies. We get an impulsive, impotent coward who lives off of the charity of others until the urge to gamble his life away comes along. A man who right up to the end refuses to learn from his mistakes. A man who “should have never come back.”

There could be a good film in there somewhere; a lot of core ideas that drive a given scene are still visible, so without being emotionally involved, one can appreciate the creative decisions from afar. Using the Sex, Lies and Videotape method of characterization (documenting tiny nuances) ultimately doesn’t suit Underneath, and late-in-the-game suspense sequences that go nowhere aren’t helpful either. Oh and also the final scene of the film is stupid.