Movies · Reviews

‘Beneath Us’ Buries an Intriguing Premise Beneath Lazy Shocks

A faulty foundation gives way to a wobbly structure.
Beneath Us
By  · Published on March 9th, 2020

The United States’ immigration problem — a problem if only because no one can agree on how to reform our current system — is a talking point in political discussions and dinner table conversations, and its prevalence in our culture means it’s also found a home in genre films. From Undocumented (2010) to Rambo: Last Blood (2019), the subject has been approached from numerous angles and intents with the latest example moving from an engaging setup to an unmemorable execution.

Alejandro (Rigo Sanchez) is an undocumented immigrant working hard to build an American dream that will someday soon include his wife and child who are still south of the border. His younger brother Memo (Josue Aguirre) is a recent arrival, and Alejandro is trying to instill a similar work ethic in the more volatile man. That includes waiting in parking lots to help customers with everything from loading a car to paving a driveway, and the pair of day laborers think they’ve hit a lucrative gig when a woman named Liz (Lynn Collins) hires them for some work around her house. Two others, Hector (Roberto Sanchez) and Antonio (Thomas Chavira), join, and soon the four men are working at a remote country estate protected by an electric fence. Liz and her husband Ben (James Tupper) aren’t shy about their “patriotic” beliefs and prove to be tough taskmasters, but they soon reveal themselves to be more than mere assholes — they’re also sadistic murderers.

The smartest thing about Beneath Us is the word play of its title as the white couple’s racist disdain for the immigrants is quickly paired with the reveal of what they do with the workers once the job is completed. It teases a sly commentary that never comes, though, as the film instead settles for broad swipes and lazy genre beats. It’s the kind of film where the villains are so over the top while the potential victim pool holds no one nearly as interesting or motivated, and while that’s not good for any horror thriller it feels especially egregious here.

Director/co-writer Max Pachman is making his feature debut here, but while he shoots a competent film the script (co-written by Mark Mavrothalasitis) can find neither thrills nor fun. The four men are slow interminably slow to react, and while it’s a horror trope that protagonists ignore the obvious warning signs there’s a distinction between a film like this and your typical slasher fare — we’re supposed to care about these guys. Without that they’re no different than the dumb teens that frequent endless sequels. Alejandro comes closest as his family concern and sincerity make him a sympathetic lead, but again and again choices are made (or not made) that are guaranteed to leave viewers frustrated. Memo is something of an ungrateful prick, and while a more dramatic story would give time to that character’s arc here we’re stuck with him being a dick.

There are some campy vibes emanating from the homicidal couple as both characters are written big and played bigger. Collins in particular is turned all the way to eleven with her pristine woman of the house who’s outraged by the slightest misstep, but those portrayals also work to lessen the perceived threat. Neither feels all that dangerous yet the upper hand remains theirs, and while that’s a point in itself being made about immigrants having to walk on eggshells and avoid disturbing the “locals” it’s one that could have used more support. Similarly, a scene that sees one of the men mistaken for a burglar is meant to be its own commentary on profiling, but its setup makes it difficult to fault the “mistake.” More fine-tuning around these ideas could have delivered real gut punches, but as it stands they’re more like gentle reminders that we’ve got a ling way to go as a country.

The end strength of Beneath Us is the idea that stories like these, whether genre oriented or not, still deliver an important reminder about the current and ongoing inequities in our so-called greatest nation on Earth. Events here are exaggerated for effect, but the attitudes and ideas at play are all too grounded and real, and that’s far more horrifying.

Related Topics:

Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.