United States, 1993
R (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio:
Peter Gallagher, Alison Elliot, William Fichtner, Adam Trese, Elisabeth Shue, Joe Don Baker
Sam Lowry (Soderbergh) and Daniel Fuchs based on the novel Criss Cross by Don Tracy
Welcome to film noir, Soderbergh-style. For his latest effort (and fourth feature), the talented director who made the dialogue-and-character-rich sex, lies, and videotape turns his attention to this talky update of 1949's Criss Cross. Focused more on people and relationships than situations, The Underneath proves to be a departure from the run-of- the-mill thriller.
The movie is told primarily in flashback and flashback-within-flashback. There are three time lines: the far past (late 1980s), the near past, and the present. Soderbergh shuttles freely between the three, employing visual clues to orient the viewer. In the far past, the main character, Michael Chambers (Peter Gallagher) is wearing a beard. In the near past, he's cleanshaven. And in the present, green filters and a grainy film stock are used.
The bulk of the story concerns Michael's return to his Texas hometown after a several-year absence. His relations with his brother David (Adam Trese) are strained, but that's nothing compared to what they are with his ex-girlfriend, Rachel (Alison Elliot). However, even after all that has happened, there's still a spark between them -- something that doesn't go unnoticed by Rachel's current lover, small-time gangster Tommy Dundee (William Fichtner). To cover up a growing re-attachment between himself and Rachel, Michael, an armored car driver, approached Tommy with scheme for a robbery. Although Tommy is intrigued by the business proposition, he's not deceived about Michael's intentions regarding Rachel.
The strengths of The Underneath -- its atmosphere and character-centered basis -- are also its weaknesses. This is, after all, a thriller, and sometimes the pace is allowed to lag. Also, the director doesn't appear especially concerned with plot developments, except in the service of character-building. But the gallery of people inhabiting this world is fascinating, as are the ways in which they interact. It doesn't take long to recognize this film as the product of the man who developed sex, lies,and videotape.
The only weakness in this complex matrix of relationships -- which involves old lovers, new lovers, gangsters, and family members -- is Tommy Dundee. Played with sneering gusto by William Fichtner in a manner that's part Dennis Hopper, part Gary Oldman, and part James Woods, this bad guy comes straight off the shelf of stock villains. There's no depth or breadth to his personality, and this shallowness fails to bolster key moments of The Underneath. The rest of the actors, including Alison Elliot as the woman caught in the middle and Elisabeth Shue as Michael's perceptive would-be girlfriend, are effective.
Film noir is a hot commodity at the moment. And, while twisty plots may not be Soderbergh's strength, he uses this one more-than-adequately as a play area for a batch of interesting characters, while at the same time remaining true to the genre. In the final assessment, The Underneath may not be a great motion picture, but it's still a cut above.