The concept behind “Beneath Us” is deeply political in a way that needs little embellishment.
Four day laborers are tortured by a rich white couple who can’t see an ounce of their humanity. That’s all you need to check off the Jordan Peele-approved messaging, and yet “Beneath Us” doesn’t stop there.
It’s just warming up.
The results repelled film critics who might otherwise cheer on the open-borders propaganda. The deeper problem? “Beneath Us” revisits the worst aspects of torture porn without the coherency Eli Roth brought to the sub-genre.
Elizabeth (Lynn Collins, “X Men Origins: “Wolverine”) hires four Mexican laborers to work on her expansive home, assuming they’re put up with her demands. “Quitting time,” for instance, isn’t in her vernacular.
She has a point about the laborers’ willingness to absorb her rules. This quartet desperately needs cash.
Alejandro (Rigo Sanchez) hopes to bring his wife and child to the U.S. at long last, while brother Memo (Josue Aguirre) is newer to the process but equally hungry. They’re joined by Hector (Roberto Sanchez) and Antonio (Tomas Chavira), and together the men get to work while commenting on their boss’ curves.
“Beneath Us” doesn’t make the Mexican characters saints, a promising start for a story brimming with “social relevancy.” They’re the good guys, we know, but they’re flawed like the rest of us.
That restraint doesn’t last long.
Elizabeth and her husband, Ben, (James Tupper) are out for blood, and if it interrupts their home renovations, so be it.
Director/co-writer Max Pachman, making his feature-length debut, teases some throwaway shots of wet cement, squished rats and crushed fruit that suggest a rich visual texture. That imagery soon gives way to Collins hamming it up like she was auditioning for a “Naked Gun” reboot. At least she makes an impact, something her cast mates can’t do with their limited roles.
We don’t need the day laborers to be complex. This is a horror romp, after all, and genre tropes should carry the load. Having Collins let loose while everyone else hews closer to reality is a tonal mistake that can’t be fixed.
Pachman undeniably sets up a taut scenario. These laborers appear trapped on the premises, and their illegal status means calling for help isn’t as easy as punching up 911. Plus, an early kill packs a visceral wallop thanks to Collins’ outsized villainy.
Suddenly we’ll put up with any amount of sloganeering for a good ol’ survival tale. The narrative won’t let that happen. The plot gets muddier as it trudges on, and the nebulous sense of time and place dings whatever tension existed.
The epilogue’s final warning is beyond comical, underlining the paranoia seeping into the entire project. It’s perfectly fine to weigh in on the immigration debate in the broadest strokes possible. Just don’t pretend doing so is profound or profoundly engaging without nailing the required horror beats.
HiT or Miss: “Beneath Us” shows the folly of turning an op-ed into a feature film.