The Underneath

(Steven Soderbergh, USA, 1995)


The second film syndrome is the tendency to mercilessly bash young directors if their second film does not quite live up to the massive hype generated by the sudden success of their first film. One of the principal casualties of this was the American filmmaker Steven Soderbergh.


Soderbergh achieved overnight fame with his smash hit at the Cannes film festival sex, lies and videotape (1989). I thought this was a good and striking film – a simple film in many ways – but also wildly over-hyped and over-praised. This hype clearly created a problem for Soderbergh. Amid all the furious speculation in starstruck magazines like Premiere about which extraordinary masterpiece this Young Turk would make next, Soderbergh chose the unusual and ambitious project Kafka (1991) with Jeremy Irons. This film has never been seen officially in Australia. Overseas, it seemed to disappoint everyone who had pinned such unreasonable hopes on Soderbergh a verdict which is hardly surprising, because this is exactly how the second film syndrome so often plays itself out.


But I imagine that it was Kafka, more than sex, lies and videotape that crystallised Soderbergh's particular and idiosyncratic filmmaking style. This style revealed itself in his third film, the very underrated and delicate childhood drama King of the Hill (1993), and in his gripping contribution to the TV noir series Fallen Angels, which I urge you to chase up on video.


Soderbergh's style has a very particular inflection and tone. He goes in for all sorts of odd, eye-popping compositions à la Orson Welles low-angle shots full of ceilings, off-centre placement of the actors, and bold, highly graphic colour schemes. There's something very Wellsian about Soderbergh's editing style too he edited King of the Hill himself. In his editing there's a rapidity of images, an off-beat sense of dramatic timing, a very sharp and wild jumping around between shots that many editors would normally not cut together.


Yet Soderbergh, although he goes in for a fairly exaggerated visual style, does not match it with an exaggerated content, the way the Coen brothers or Sam Raimi do. There's a hushed, classical side to Soderbergh's more achieved works. This sets him part from many of his contemporaries. Soderbergh is really into character psychology, but specifically he's into the ambiguities, the black holes, the never-explicitly-spoken aspects of this psychology. That much was already clear from sex, lies and videotape, and it was what gave that film its appeal its strange but very familiar characters who wandered between alienation and lucidity, between amorality and principle, between perverse games and healing therapy. Soderbergh has a fine way with characterisation, with character interaction, and with the ensemble direction of a very diverse bunch of actors. He goes in for almost wordless, extremely cryptic exchanges between his characters, suffused with a precisely understated emotion.


Fallen Angels was Soderbergh's first rendezvous with the 1940s-style film noir, and watching his remarkable contribution to that series I realised this rendezvous was a truly destined one. The film noir stories of desire flaming up at a glance, of ambiguous complicity and betrayal, of surging forth of sudden acts of violence that hide deeper and less fathomable personal agendas all this is perfect material for Soderbergh, now that he's hit his stride as a filmmaker. The Underneath is an extraordinary exercise in modern film noir. It is in fact a remake of a 1940s noir classic, Robert Siodmak's Criss Cross (1949). That was in itself already a complex, atmospheric and mysterious film, and Soderbergh has done a marvellous job of re-jigging its mysteries of plot and character psychology for today.


I have to say right away that The Underneath is a frankly experimental film in the context of current mainstream cinema, and certainly a daring project for Soderbergh to attempt. It's edited like an obscure jigsaw puzzle, skipping speedily around four different periods in the life of its hero; we haven't seen free-associative narrative editing quite like this in mainstream American movies since the '60s. Its visual, compositional style is stunningly off-the-wall. Let me warn you well in advance: this film will be impossible to watch on a full-frame video or DVD. It's a widescreen film, and virtually every shot of the movie places someone or something either on the extreme left or extreme right of screen, and often both extremes at once. On a bad TV transfer, you may find yourself looking at the blank space in the middle of the picture. It's a brave, and perhaps slightly suicidal director who fashions a movie like this in the age of TV and video: even Scorsese admits that he nudges the major part of his action into the centre of the screen, so it won't drop off when the picture gets reduced.


The Underneath an extremely mysterious title is a film noir in the tradition of the B movie noir classic Detour (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1945). It features an anti-hero who is lost, confused, morally shifty, often knocked unconscious, framed, put completely behind the narrative eight-ball, deprived of all kinds of key information that he neither glimpses nor overhears and even if he does see and hear, he doesn't always understand in time to do anything about it. This hero, Michael Chambers played well by Peter Gallagher, who's only ever any good in Soderbergh films is in short a standard film noir loser, an ordinary bum, rather than the kind of charismatic detective-hero once played by Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks, 1946). 


It's hard to even keep a complete grasp of the plot of The Underneath as it unfolds, and I'd be lying if I said I was able to work it out on the basis of a single viewing. But that's not a criticism: I'm very fond of films that I don't entirely understand on a first viewing. Possibilities, enigmas, mysteries keep flowering in this film from scene to scene, and part of its cagey strategy is that some of these mysteries remain mysterious, tucked away in the deep structure. Gallagher returns to his home town in Austin, Texas; his mother is re-marrying. He re-kindles a relation with an old flame (Rachel), played by screen newcomer Alison Elliot, but it's a dangerous relation, since her new flame is a violent, psychotic, possessive guy. In a moment of panic and weakness, our shambling hero decides to instigate a robbery of an armoured van, since his daily job is to drive that van; naturally, things don't go altogether smoothly.


You may be a little tired of heist-gone-wrong films in the wake of Reservoir Dogs, but The Underneath is absolutely nothing like Tarantino's loud, brash debut. Like Fresh (Boaz Yakin, 1994), this becomes a film about intricate, split-second power games. As in classic noirs, Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder, 1944), or The Lady From Shanghai (Orson Welles, 1948), questions of who to trust, of who you presume is stupid and who you presume is smart, come dramatically into play.


But as befits a '90s noir, Soderbergh doesn't rely on those old generic anchors of the treacherous femme fatale, the faithful buddy, or the good cop. He turns the original story of Criss Cross into more of a quiet but corrosive family melodrama, where the ties that bind are more frayed, more duplicitous, more traumatic than ever.

MORE Soderbergh: Erin Brockovich, Full Frontal, The Limey, Ocean's Eleven, Solaris, Traffic, The Knick

© Adrian Martin August 1995

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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