It’s brutishly heavy-handed, with a performance or two so hammy they came straight from the smokehouse.
But those quibbles aside, “Beneath Us” is a torture porn satire that never fails to hold one’s interest, even if it doesn’t quite come off. It takes you from point A to point U — underground, literally “beneath us,” with efficiency and visceral verve.
This topical tale is about illegal immigration, bigotry and the exploitation that always wins out when capitalist bigots struggle with their consciences on the subject.
In large cities in some corners of America — especially Southern California — you can find day laborers standing on the corner next to your home improvement/lumber store. They work on the cheap, off the books. Because they’re not legally here or allowed to work here.
Day after day, guys like this get into strangers’ vehicles and ride off for a job site they hope will be lucrative, safe and easy. The simple but clever conceit here is “What if it is none of the above?”
After a bit of “Give away your movie whydoncha?” as a prologue, we meet Memo (Josue Aguirre), a sullen young man riding into America in the trunk of a car. He’s here to reunited with older brother Alejandro (Rigo Sanchez).
The reunion isn’t tearful or even that pleasant. Antonio has been in SoCal for years. He has a wife and son he is saving to try to get across the border. And Memo seems to resent all that this American Dream has cost them.
He’s not that crazy about the whole day-laborer thing. Hector (Roberto ‘Sanz’ Sanchez) is the macho guy in their “crew” who jokes about gringos telling each other never to get into a stranger’s van or car, “but we do it” no questions asked.
Their “We can do it cheaper” hustle pays off — maybe too easily. And the curvaceous customer (Lynn Collins) is awfully brazen about letting four men she doesn’t know into her SUV. Is it her crucifix that protects her?
“What kind of man sends his woman to pick up strangers?” Hector wonders.
We instantly wonder who’s in the REAL “stranger danger” here?
The “four man job” involves Hector, Alejandro, Memo and Tonio (Thomas Chavira) renovating a guest house. They dry wall, put in flooring, paint and dig and pour cement for a new patio.
Sound like a lot to get done in a day? Even a very LONG day? It is. They can’t finish. But she hasn’t come out to dismiss them, pay them or offer them a lift back to town.
Worklights kick on.
“I’ll bet they’re hoping we leave,” Hector complains, (in English and Spanish with Engish subtitles). They won’t be bluffed.
If nobody picked up on the clue that a drill bit they’re using has bits of blood and hair on it, surely Liz (Collins, of TV’s “Manhunt”TV) turning the hose on them to wake them in the middle of the night is the give-away.
They’re not going anywhere. With no pay, no “papers,” no transport and no way out of a gated, electric-fenced rural farmhouse, she has all the power. Her husband (James Tupper of TV’s “Big Little Lies”) may be in and out, off playing golf in ugly white-fop stereotype shorts and black socks. Liz has a shotgun.
And things turn from unfair to unpleasant to unsurvivable in a flash.
This debut feature from Max Pachman ups the violence ante without doing enough to ratchet up suspense at the same time.
There’s a passivity to the entrapped men — save for Hector, who is big and burly, a blowhard and sexist skirt-chaser. And then there’s Collins’ Liz, a campy cartoon of a villainness.
She tosses her hair, shows some leg or cleavage and archly plays up the lip-smacking cruelty of the character, always protesting that “I wouldn’t want you to think I’m being unfair!”
It’s not satire. It’s camp.
The movie itself never follows her down that Cruella-de-House-Flipper hole, and that muffles its impact. Either go over-the-top or don’t. No fence sitting.
“Beneath Us” scores its satiric points without the “15 million illegals” speeches, and there’s tension even in characters who seem quite helpless (She DOES have them over a barrel.) and unable to resist the ugly fate that seems to await them.
But “Beneath Us” leaves the viewer with more a “Nice try, guys” than any sense of release or righteous fury at what we’re watching.
MPAA Rating:R for violence, language and some nudity
Cast: Lynn Collins, Rigo Sanchez, Josue Aguirre, James Tupper, Roberto ‘Sanz’ Sanchez and Edy Ganem
Credits: Directed by Max Pachman, script by Mark Mavrothalasitis and Max Pachman. A New Mainstream Entertainment release.
Running time: 1:30