Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Steven Soderbergh’s The Underneath plays like a dry run to later triumphs

Illustration for article titled Steven Soderbergh’s The Underneath plays like a dry run to later triumphs

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Just in time for Runner Runner, we deal five movies about gamblers.


The Underneath (1995)

Shortly before he cleansed his directorial palate with Schizopolis then started over with an Elmore Leonard adaptation, Steven Soderbergh made The Underneath, a re-visitation of the novel Criss Cross (previously adapted by Daniel Fuchs, granted a posthumous screenwriting credit here). Soderbergh’s version plays like a dry run to his character-driven, chronology-scrambled crime pictures like Out Of Sight and The Limey. Difference is, it doesn’t star anyone as magnetic as George Clooney or Terence Stamp, instead casting Peter Gallagher as a former gambler returning to his hometown for his mother’s wedding.

But Gallagher’s low-key aloofness—he only ever seems faintly apologetic about his past misdeeds—works well for this low-key noir. As the film cuts between Gallagher’s return to town, his last weeks before he left, and a day on his suspicious new job as an armored car driver, it becomes clear that for this character, trying to do the right-ish thing (catching up with his mother and making nice with her good-natured new husband) is like walking back into an OTB. Gallagher stops betting on sports but keeps making bigger gambles, mostly involving former flame Alison Elliott and her testy new boyfriend William Fichtner. One of these gambles seems almost metatextual: He’s banking on the idea that Elliott is more damsel in distress than femme fatale.

The Underneath is minor Soderbergh, a slim genre piece made before the director started turning his obsessions into serious art. Nevertheless, it offers some bold experiments in visual style as well as narrative, like the glacial push-in on Gallagher and Elliott kissing underneath an overpass, bathed in blue. Soderbergh-ian color filters are frequent, sometimes making a nondescript city look as stylized as Las Vegas. Soderbergh would revisit the intersection of gambling and robbery again in his Ocean’s trilogy, adding further to the list of his movies whose roots can be traced back to this one. In retrospect, The Underneath looks like crucial practice time.

Availability: The Underneath isn’t available on Blu-ray, but it can be purchased on DVD (often for very, very cheap) or rented through Netflix’s disc delivery service.