Director Steven Soderbergh follows up 1993's undeservedly neglected King of the Hill with the kind of hometown-as-hell story that's usually served up harshly lit and bare-bones ugly, like a dull, yellow-skied afternoon you would be happy to nap through. Gallagher, a charming if feckless failure whose past includes some wild gambling missteps, returns to Austin, Texas, for his widowed mother's marriage and shortly trips into yet another, even wilder misadventure.
A simple setup. But Soderbergh, with a large assist from a team that includes cinematographer Elliot Davis and production designer Howard Cummings, has chosen to make The Underneath as elaborately, glossily "movieish" as possible. There are disorienting camera angles. What at first seems like a flashback turns out to be a flash-forward. And many scenes are gorgeously accented with a silvery, aquarium blue. Tropical fish would love this movie!
Such effects tiptoe to the border of self-indulgence, but they make The Underneath a joy to watch. And, because you quickly lose your bearings, they work to focus your attention on the psychology of Soderbergh's sour little band of characters: Gallagher, his sinister cop brother (Adam Trese), an unhappy ex-wife (Elliott) and a hotheaded club owner (William Fichtner).
What Soderbergh is doing is slowly sucking the air out of the room: As with his 1989 sex, lies, and videotape, the movie becomes very still and tense. Only after a nerve-racking segment in a hospital does The Underneath reveal its noirish roots. It's based on Don Tracy's 1934 novel Criss Cross, which was the source for a 1949 Burt Lancaster crime melodrama of the same name.
Soderbergh's direction turns flabby near the end, as the plot clogs up with the sort of predictable crosses and double crosses that, judging from the adulation for The Last Seduction, many people still find clever. But that's the only misfire. The movie has quite a kick. (R)