22 August 2005

The Underneath

A remake of the 1949 noir Criss Cross, directed by Robert Siodmak (which I have not yet seen, though I’m adding it to my Netflix list), Steven Soderbergh's The Underneath is the story of Michael Chambers, a young man who returns home years after a sudden departure to escape gambling debts. His mother (Anjanette Comer) is about to marry an armored truck security guard, his brother keeps his distance, there’s tension around the dinner table, he finds out his former girlfriend, Rachel, is dating a thug…in other words, things start off pretty dark. And stay in dark territory, as Michael accepts his stepfather’s offer of a job at the armored truck company (alarming his brother, a policeman) and sets out to pursue Rachel.

Rachel at first rejects Michael’s overtures, telling him, “Don’t call me, don’t talk to me,” but when he takes her at her word, she starts pursuing him in turn. Then, without warning, she marries the thug, Tommy Dundee. Dundee eventually breaks in on a tryst, and to divert his suspicion Michael tells him that he and Rachel were actually discussing his idea to rob an armored truck.

As you can imagine, the movie gets more noir from there. You’re never sure who’s telling the truth and who’s lying. Things that seem straightforward aren’t. For example, Michael’s brother David, who seems to dislike him for being a slacker, and not supporting their mother enough when their father died, is himself no great model of thoughtfulness. After he presents his mother a pair of earrings on the morning of her wedding, there is a short but awkward pause. Then she smiles and says, “They’re beautiful. I’ll have to get my ears pierced.”

The movie is fraught with flashbacks, which don’t do much to make things clearer. And yet its effect lingers. I still catch myself trying to figure out who knew what when—which events were accidents and which were planned, and by whom.

This 1995 release stars Peter Gallagher (who also starred in Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape) as the prodigal son; with Adam Trese as his brooding brother David; Paul Dooley as his mother’s new husband; Alison Elliot as Rachel, the girl Michael left behind; Elisabeth Shue as Susan, the girl Michael just met; and Shelley Duvall as a nurse.

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