Angry, brutal, and more than a little campy, Max Pachman’s directorial debut “Beneath Us” is a thriller with a lot on its mind. Subtlety is not one of those things, but when has subtlety ever been part of a recipe for exploitation cinema?
“Beneath Us” may be brand new, but it plays like the kind of overlooked yet fascinating B-movie rediscovery that Vinegar Syndrome would dig up out of the 1970s and unleash upon a grateful grindhouse marketplace.
“Beneath” stars Rigo Sanchez (“Animal Kingdom”) and Josue Aguirre (“Veronica Mars”) as Alejandro and Memo, two undocumented workers who stand outside a lumber mill every day in Eagle Rock, Calif., looking for contracting work. Alejandro wants to save money to bring his wife and son over the border to join him. His younger brother Memo has come to America for mysterious reasons and seems to harbor a lot of mixed feelings and resentments about his older brother abandoning his family.
Alejandro and Memo seem to have struck pay dirt when they talk a rich white woman, Liz (Lynn Collins, “Bosch”), into paying them $500 each for fixing up a small guest house. With a few other day laborers, they set about sawing wood, sanding walls, fixing floorboards, never really questioning why Liz’s isolated and spacious estate is surrounded by an electrified fence, or why the power drill she supplies them has flecks of blood and matted hair on it.
As evening falls, our heroes would very much like to go home, but Liz and her husband Ben (James Tupper, “Big Little Lies”) won’t pay them unless the work is finished, and they don’t take kindly to laziness, like trying to get some sleep. Microaggressions and low-key racism gradually escalate into shocking violence, as Alejandro and Memo finally realize that they’re being treated like expendable slaves, not human beings.
Ostensibly, “Beneath Us” is Alejandro and Memo’s story, but Lynn Collins’ villainous performance takes up the most space. Her portrayal of a woman blinded by racism and affluence, who thinks nothing of stomping someone to death with her high heel but teeters into nearly psychotic rage when someone forgets to use a coaster, is a farcical spectacular. Her performance is a living, breathing, stiff middle finger to racists everywhere, and a demand — practically at gunpoint — to deny dehumanizing monsters any shred of dignity.
The irony, though, is that Collins’s deliriously over-the-top performance doesn’t leave a lot of space for Sanchez, Aguirre and their co-stars, with whom our sympathies are supposed to lie. By spending more time focusing on the torturers than the tortured, “Beneath Us” sidesteps suspense (and the possibility that our heroes might escape) in favor of extended depictions of merely ugly violence. It’s an unbalanced approach to the horror genre, but it doesn’t seem to be accidental.
If anything, the sidelining of Alejandro and Memo seems to be carefully calculated: Their stories are obviously rich and fascinating, touched upon in little details and unspoken reveals. But “Beneath Us” never tells their whole life stories. Why? Because nobody in the movie cares enough about them to ask. It’s a pointed and thoughtful storytelling conceit that is, simply, undermined by letting the evil racist killers soak up all the screen time instead.
What “Beneath Us” successfully achieves, however, is the sensation of undeniable horror. The red flags are bright red, but as Alejandro and Memo’s co-worker Hector (Roberto Sanchez, “Flavor of Life”) argues, that’s the status quo for undocumented workers. White Americans are told to stay away from unmarked white vans while, Hector observes, he needs to jump inside to make a living. The dangers and dehumanization come part and parcel, and “Beneath Us” takes those threats to horrific but pointed extremes.
Once the cards are all on the table and “Beneath Us” settles into its terrible sequence of events, the movie loses a little steam. Our heroes are being asked to dig their own graves, figuratively and maybe even literally, and their only reward is to lie in them. The grimness takes over after a while and never seems to let up, but the excellent score by Joshua Moshier (“Baskets”) adds anxiety into the mix with a piercing, tinnitus squeal of string instruments, and the pastoral cinematography by Jeff Powers (“NOS4A2: Ghost”) insidiously evokes cinematic tales of the rural South prior to the Civil War.
It’s the finale of “Beneath Us” that was, perhaps, destined to make or break the film. Pachman’s film never entirely escalates to the grand conclusion we’re predicting, but the finale is well-earned and tense, and at least one of the climactic shocks is as terrible and terrifying a moment as can be found in any movie in recent memory. A brief but unpredictable change in the film’s storytelling vocabulary, smartly executed by editor Taylor Alexander Ward — a music-video vet — leaves our nerves completely obliterated and affords them no time to heal.
“Beneath Us” lacks refinement, but that’s like saying blunt force trauma lacks elegance. The movie exists to throw contemporary racism into sharp relief by drawing a vivid parallel to the worst chapters in American history, and it’s undeniably effective. Collins brings a lot of camp value to an otherwise depressing narrative, and her Russ Meyer-inspired characterization eventually gets a little distracting, but the filmmakers don’t make the mistake of confusing her inhuman wickedness for fun.
“Beneath Us” never lets the exploitation cinema elements get in the way of the serious conversation about actual, real-life exploitation. That makes it frightening, and that makes it bold.