It’s a scary time to be an American. As demonstrated in BENEATH US, however, it’s a horrifying time to be an immigrant.
From director Max Pachman, the bold horror-thriller follows a particularly horrific experience through the eyes of undocumented workers who are hired by a wealthy couple, only to be held captive at the couple’s secluded mansion.
The film kicks off on a promising note. Utilizing handheld cinematography, the documentary-style presentation is surprisingly immersive and creates a sense of urgency and realism. Scenes involving workers on the city streets searching for their next job feel genuine, as do the film’s protagonists Memo (Josue Aguirre), Alejandro (Rigo Sanchez), Hector (Roberto Sanchez), and Tonio (Thomas Chavira).
It’s when our protagonists take on a job offer for Liz Rhodes (Lynn Collins) and her husband Ben (James Tupper) at their house that things begin to take a turn for the worst. At first, the couple seems to be a little odd (and that’s putting it nicely). However, their actions turn more and more hostile and the four workers soon realize that the couple harbors an extreme hatred for immigrants and only wishes to exploit them for their labor.
BENEATH US, at its best, feels like it’s following in the footsteps of Jordan Peele, tackling a very real and sensitive subject in the context of a genre film. The movie’s first act is occasionally clever, ratcheting up the suspense delicately through carefully placed set pieces. I particularly enjoyed the film’s use of lighting and shadows (there’s a great shot of Liz’s silhouette as she watches our protagonists at work from inside her home).
It’s when the couple’s dark side reveals itself, however, that the movie doesn’t quite know what to do with itself. It begins to ride a fine line between social thriller and predictable torture porn/body count film.
After the effective buildup, the remainder of BENEATH US focuses on our protagonists’ struggle for survival at the mansion as Liz and Ben humiliate, intimidate, and, ostensibly, enslave them. Throughout these scenes, Liz and Ben’s views are made crystal clear: they loathe immigrants, viewing them as less than human. As such, they wish to exploit them for their hard work as much as possible.
What will certainly be one of the film’s most polarizing talking points is Collins’ performance. Whereas almost every other character in the film is played in a more grounded way, Liz Rhodes is as over the top as can be – a caricature of a villain. I understand it’s likely an intentional, stylistic decision, but it came off as jarring and at odds with the tone of the first act. She’s thoroughly evil and you’ll find yourself begging for her comeuppance, but it’s hard for me not to wonder what it would be like if her character were written or performed a bit differently.
Perhaps it doesn’t help that none of these characters feel particularly fleshed out. As mentioned previously, the performances from the protagonists are solid, but there’s not really enough time to get attached to them. The movie attempts to weave in a sub-plot of brotherhood, but it doesn’t quite stick the landing. That said, it’s still easy to root for these four leading men. The film does offer a few satisfying scenes where, thanks to their resourcefulness, our protagonists pull the rug out from under the abhorrent Liz and Ben. It’s these moments that best demonstrate the potential of the film’s strong premise and ideas.
BENEATH US is not a subtle film, nor does it need to be. I tip my hat to the team for tackling a daring concept. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t offer much insight into such a sensitive topic. It’s not quite deep enough for discerning moviegoers nor is it satisfying enough for horror fans. As a result, it’s hard to envision the film starting a conversation, though perhaps I can picture it striking an emotional chord with certain viewers.
BENEATH US first premiered at the Phoenix Film Festival on April 11, 2019. It will be released theatrically in the U.S. on March 6, 2020 by Vital Pictures/NME.