If one were to take the premise of Michael Haneke’s 1997 (and 2007) searing hostage nightmare Funny Games, reverse the roles and make the hostages undocumented day laborers you’d have the timely, politically charged bones of Beneath Us...
...Director Max Pachman’s debut centers around four undocumented Mexican laborers, two of whom are recently reunited brothers Memo, played by Josue Aguirre (Dexter, The Day the Earth Stood Still) and Alejandro, played by Rigo Sanchez (The Last Ship, Animal Kingdom). The four find themselves, like so many in real life, vying against one another outside of a home improvement store for literally any opportunity be it construction or simply loading work materials into customers’ vehicles.
Pachman makes quick work of drawing lines in the sand, pitting the four against not only each other, but the store employees who openly deride them, dismissing them as parasites, vermin (a recurring theme in the film), to be maligned. But their luck seemingly changes when Liz (Lynn Collins), a comically naive white woman, offers them an opportunity to make a good deal more than they’re used to in exchange for construction labor building a guest house for her and her husband Ben (James Tupper).
Beneath Us takes its time setting the hooks, laying out the breadcrumbs for our four laborers and the audience to follow to its violent conclusion. And it’s a conclusion that’s earned, one that works in spite of moments of loose plotting and a good deal of overacting from Collins. She spends an unreal amount of time chewing both the scenery and in one instance, a co-star. Still, her delivery as a dangerously unstable nationalist/racist is so overdone it contrasts the reality and forces the audience to consider how unlike her the real-life iterations of these types of people are. They’re our neighbors, and what could be more frightening?
In a post-Get Out world it seems impossible that a film could tackle such incendiary sociopolitical topics without garnering divisive attention and criticism. And it is impossible, but instead of doing insane legwork to redirect that focus, Beneath Use is leaning into the controversy. A recent poster for the film boasts outraged Fox News-style commentary emblazoned in the margins. It’s a strategy that other films are playing into also. Last year’s horror thriller The Hunt was shelved prior to release due to cultural concerns about its message and political prescience. Now its been resurrected and has wholeheartedly embraced its controversy, even diving into bravura by claiming to be the year’s “most talked about movie”.
It would be impossible and frankly, foolish to ignore the controversy. Beneath Us is a film about racism, nationalism, and worth noting in a year where Parasite won the Oscar for Best Picture, classism. Though it’s clear that Pachman and co-writer Mark Mavrothalasitis want to use this film as a platform for social indictment, not everything plays in favor of their goal. Some parallels play too close to the center, are too easy to tip in a way that reinforces everything the rest of the film seems poised to tear down. Notably a vermin infestation Liz handles with sudden violence that acts as a simulacrum of her hatred for immigrants, and in this instance directly to Memo, Alejandro, and company.
Overall Beneath Us achieves what it sets out to do. We hate the racists and root for the disenfranchised. The road to justice is circuitous and imperfect but proves worth it. And it’s clear that this film is made with more than just a desire to capitalize on a hot political topic. All of the moving parts serve to support the others in their moments of weakness. Aguirre and Sanchez turn affecting performances where the scripting falls short. The cinematographic exploitation of California’s lush valleys keep the film’s bleak prognosis from excising the audience’s hope in its entirety. While it’s unlikely to be the conversation-starter that Get Out was or the award sweeper that Parasite was, Beneath Us works as a cautionary tale about the high costs of American dreams for those not born into it.
Discover the terror of Beneath Us in select theaters on March 6th, 2020 from Vital Pictures!
By Paul Bauer