Beneath Us boasts the kind of premise that begs to described as “provocative and timely.” Others may peg it as “misguided and exploitative.” But billing it as “clumsy if well-intentioned” is as generous a description as it deserves. Aiming to be a kind of Get Out for undocumented day laborers (an unjust comparison if there ever was one), the Max Pachman-directed thriller begins when a group of four such workers are picked up by a seemingly clueless white woman outside of a hardware store. They’re cheap labor and, though they gawk and catcall her in the car on the way to her house, they all come to a mutually beneficial agreement: they’ll work for her on her property for a fraction of the price she was planning to pay a contractor. Soon enough though the four men begin to realize they may have stepped into something much more sinister — their employers are used to making a killing, quite literally, when it comes to flipping houses using undocumented labor.
Yes, this is a film wherein Mexicans are kidnapped and terrorized by a racist white couple eager to exploit them and then discard them. It’s no surprise that in the run-up to its release the low-budget thriller has already tried to capitalize on its buzzy premise. Taking a page out of The Hunt (that movie about rich people hunting poor people that got delayed after earning its fair share of Internet hate last year), Beneath Us has been openly courting that kind of controversy. On Twitter, the film’s marketing has been sharing a riff on The Hunt‘s own provocative poster where instead of sharing positive reviews, they share outraged reactions (“Make white people look bad again,” “What in the white people?” “Keeping the division alive”). This is a project that is keen to raise eyebrows; it wants to feed on a collective sense of outrage about what kinds of stories get to make it to the screen. And, more to the point, what real-life horrors deserve the horror film treatment.
Because make no mistake: Beneath Us will feed into whatever political fears you already hold. There’s a discomforting “both sides-ism” running through this sun-dappled horror thriller which deploys its blunt metaphors all too earnestly. As a way to signal that Liz Rhodes (Lynn Collins) is comfortable not just exploiting the day laborers she’s hired but actively loathes their mere existence, Pachman and his co-writer Mark Mavrothalasitis have her dealing with a rat infestation in her kitchen with ultra violent results. At first annoyed by their squeaks, she stomps these critters to death with undue cruelty, as explicit a foreshadowing of what’s to come as it gets. Then again, to even have that brief moment work as a metaphor means equating the likes of Memo (Josue Aguirre), Alejandro (Rigo Sanchez), Hector (Roberto Sanchez) and Tonio (Thomas Chavira) to vermin, which can feel like treading a fine line between an all too facile way of playing into anti-immigrant rhetoric and all-out redeploying it.
Similarly, an early moment when Hector quips that “gringos warn their children to stay away from white vans. We’re the only ones who jump into them,” when talking about what it means for day laborers to blindly trust those who employ them, too glibly underlines the very themes the film is tackling: the constant fear that grip undocumented workers who take such jobs. Later still, they’ll stress again how the fear goes both ways: it takes trust to bring someone to your property; it takes trust to believe you’ll be paid.
If Beneath Us lacks nuance, it is by design. Collins’ Liz is as cartoonish a villain as you’re likely to find, a hollow monstrous idea of what happens when white Americans fail to see the humanity of those they exploit. Her placid white liberalism hides a disdain for the Other; moreover, she thrives knowing how much power she has over these helpless men whom she’s ready to shoot, stomp and kill as needed. In contrast to her big performance, Aguirre and Sanchez are particularly affecting in their roles, managing to deepen characterizations that feel too thin on the page.
On paper, this is all a fascinating premise for a horror movie, especially once the film leans into its slasher-cum-home-invasion genre trappings (expect lots of gore amid claustrophobic scenarios that do make Memo and Alejandro feel like vermin in the eyes of their captors). Overall, though, Beneath Us coasts on its shocking ideas alone, rarely making what would be a pulse-pounding thriller anything more than fodder for online outrage campaigns.
Neither as thought-provoking as it thinks it is, nor as powerful a conversation-starter as it should be, Pachman’s modern-day parable is not likely to change anyone’s mind. One need only look at the YouTube comments under its trailer for proof: the use of “undocumented” in the film’s synopsis is enough to send anti-immigrant rhetoric soaring (you can guess what they wish Memo and the others were called instead) while the very concept of the film can only succeed if and when the likes of Alejandro and Memo are seen as people and not (just) as pawns in horrors both real or imagined. That’s a tall order and one which this much too literal project aims for but fails to land.
Beneath Us hits theaters March 6, 2020.