Following the release of Sex, Lies, and Videotape in 1989, Steven Soderbergh was poised for stardom as the darling of the indie scene. He sat at the head table in a push to change the face of cinema. Unlike contemporaries like Tarantino, his predicted rise didn’t happen right away. He followed the popular debut with Kafka and King of the Hill, and neither came close to earning a significant return. The talent was there, but Soderbergh needed more than critical praise to keep his career intact. His next step was 1995’s The Underneath, a low-key noir film that didn’t change his perception as a director with limited appeal. Despite a convincing lead performance from Peter Gallagher, it earned just over $500,000 on a more than $6 million budget. Was Soderbergh doomed to slip completely off the map? Despite the lack of financial rewards, this movie contains the elements that served him well several years later. It provides an interesting precursor to Out of Sight and The Limey, plus the blockbusters that followed.
Gallagher stars as Michael Chambers, a former gambling addict who returns to his hometown for his mom’s wedding. He reunites with his ex-wife Rachel (Allison Elliott) and his brother David (Adam Treese), who still can’t get over Michael’s past mistakes. Temptation lurks around every corner, especially when he starts a new job working for an armored car service. Strong armed into planning a heist by Rachel’s new boyfriend Tommy Dundee (the great William Fichtner), he looks for a way out of a very tricky predicament. He’s in a tight spot. Numerous questions appear with each person’s behavior. Does Rachel still love Michael, or is her interest an act? Why does David hate his brother so much? The armored car owner (Joe Don Baker) seems too friendly. What’s his game? These questions set the groundwork for a mix of twists that keeps viewers guessing right to the end.
Soderbergh complicates matters by switching between multiple timelines in a manner that worked brilliantly in Out of Sight. He changes the color palettes (and Gallagher’s facial hair) to avoid confusion and slowly reveals the challenges for the lead. He may seem like a stand-up guy today, but that’s hardly the case given his past. What’s strange is how Michael seems to have forgotten the information Soderbergh’s revealing to us. Once his mistakes are more evident, the behaviors of Rachel and David make a lot more sense. Like Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past, Michael is trying to start something new. What he doesn’t realize is that he can never outrun his previous deeds. It’s only a matter of time before he ends up in a hospital bed or beneath the ground. Trusting a guy like Tommy is foolish, but Michael has few choices in a world filled with deception.
The enjoyment from this film mostly relates to the style, which frequently envelops the characters in darkness. Even during the daytime, Soderbergh and cinematographer Eliot Davis use different colors to avoid any positive feelings. Michael meets an attractive bank teller (Elizabeth Shue) on the bus ride home, and a possible romance begins. Even so, it feels like they’re going through the motions. Neither wants much more than a fling, and Michael can’t help but long for his ex-wife. Rachel also seems not to care for Tommy, who’s obviously a tool from the moment he steps on screen. Fichtner excels at playing this type of guy who tries so hard to convince everyone he’s in charge. This early performance is less physically imposing yet contains just the right amount of slimy confidence. Casting the right actors is essential for this small-scale story, and no one misses a beat. Elliott seems a bit flat at first, but that cold demeanor hearkens back to past betrayals. Flashbacks show her once-vivacious personality that has been replaced by a cold mask.
Soderbergh hadn’t developed his trademarks in 1995, but he takes giant steps with The Underneath. The enjoyment of watching smart characters try to maneuver out of tricky situations would carry into the Oceans films. He’s experimenting with time and pacing, and the results are engaging. The slow-burn plot moves swiftly and tackles each scene from interesting angles. The best moments show Michael’s perspective on a hospital bed while various characters interview him. When a mysterious stranger appears in the hall, the tensions rise to nearly unbearable levels. Is this guy a killer sent to finish the job or just a concerned parent hoping his daughter gets better? These effective moments lift this film above your standard noir thriller and set the stage for Soderbergh’s success to come.
– Dan Heaton