By DAKOTA DAHL
Starring Kate Dickie, Ned Dennehy, Burn Gorman and Tanya Reynolds
Written and Directed by Chino Moya
Before we begin, it probably might clarify this review if we tried to define “Kafkaesque,” so readers know exactly what UNDERGODS wishes to be. Simply put, Kafkaesque means something evocative of the writings of Franz Kafka. His works were usually surreal, bleak, nightmarish and comedic all as a way to analyze the increasingly bizarre and bureaucratic world society arbitrarily upholds and enforces. While UNDERGODS has the veneer of a black comedy and the stilted storytelling of something surreal, it’s ultimately empty and boring, criticizing very little while taking a long time to say nothing.
Two filthy men drive through the ruins of what appears to be a Soviet era city, the architecture all utilitarian brutalism. This is the kind of striking imagery, with leading lines and lingering shots, that Chino Moya definitely assumed would carry the film. As a feature debut, the movie is gorgeously and competently shot, eschewing the rapid editorial cuts usually present in most Hollywood films. But if beautiful imagery was all it took to make a successful story, writers would be out of a job. The two filthy men scour the remnants of this unknown wasteland looking for slaves and meat. While driving and drinking, they tell each other stories, which become confusingly intermingled with their real lives. The central story being told is one of a man, Harry (Ned Dennehy) who has locked himself out of his apartment. He asks to use the phone of a couple, Ron and Ruth (Michael Gould, Hayley Carmichael) who do the neighborly thing and let Harry in. The landlord can’t be reached, so the couple invites Harry to crash on their couch. We slowly learn that Ron and Ruth have an unhappy marriage, which Harry begins to exploit. He drinks and eats them dry, before eventually seducing Ruth. Ron confides his troubles to the local doorman, who informs them that Harry can’t possibly be locked out of his apartment, since Ron and Ruth are the only people living in the building, an indicator that this unruined world might be closer to the ruins at the start of the film. Oh, by the way, this twist is ruined by whichever tit edited together the trailer , so I didn’t really spoil anything.
Oddly, this story links to other stories, some of them told by a father tucking in his child, others just naturally segue into the chaos realm of the two men driving around. One involves a greedy investor cheating a mad scientist out of his invention, only to be led into the ruins from the start of the film, where he is captured by our two original storytellers. That leads to the tale of a man who is enslaved in the ruined world, but wins the lottery and is set free back into what is assumed to be “our” world. There, he disrupts the life of his ex-wife (Kate Dickie, amazing as always) and her new husband by returning after fifteen years. There are some hijinks there, including someone getting far too drunk at an office party, but it’s all kind of unfunny, uninteresting, and difficult to explain.
The core reason UNDERGODS fails to pull off any dystopian or surrealistic appraisals of our modern society is that it doesn’t take any existing criticisms to an absurd degree, it’s just absurd. People being in loveless marriages, empty buildings, and bizarre love triangles are weird, but what exactly are they trying to scrutinize? Sure, even Kafka’s works themselves are somewhat inscrutable and difficult to parse cohesive meaning from, but the tones and criticisms are there, and the journey through them is interesting, entertaining, and beautiful. UNDERGODS is just beautiful and is the most pop-culture version of weird, the kind of surreal that might appeal to a first-year philosophy student. It’s emotionally and intellectually underwhelming.
Of course, with something so layered and clearly thoughtfully crafted, one reviewer might just be too thick or too cynical to glean meaning from UNDERGODS. It’s definitely worth a watch since it’s a feast for the eyes, and perhaps more worldly audiences can figure out if there’s more depth to the film.
UNDERGODS is now screening in theaters and available on Digital Platforms.