Undergods searches a dystopian city for fragments of male ego

Chino Moya’s debut feature collects three stories into a stylish package of domestic male insecurity, all set in a crumbling European city.

Undergods (2020)

▶︎ Undergods is available in UK cinemas and on BFI Player, Apple TV, Amazon and other digital platforms from 17 May.

Between its concern with storytelling and dream, and its portmanteau structure, Chino Moya’s debut feature Undergods suggests an elaborate dystopian variant on Dead of Night (1945), offering a trio of unsettling tales that nest into each other. Echoes of work by Dominik Moll, Ben Wheatley and Peter Strickland can also be discerned in the film’s trippy blend of weirdness and social black comedy. A stronger script giving equal weight to each story would have produced a more satisfying ride, but Undergods offers enough perverse pleasures to make it worthy of note.

Acclaimed for stylish videos for St. Vincent and Will Young, and also a photographer and comic-book writer, the Madrid-born Moya brings a distinctive visual sensibility to the film from the off, setting the viewer down in a desolate European city (the film was shot in Belgrade and Tallinn) of crumbling tower blocks, lensed in washed-out blues and greys by DP David Raedeker. Here two corpse collectors (Géza Röhrig and Johann Myers, underused) drive through the detritus in a van, going about their work and sharing stories.

The three narratives centre on middle-aged male protagonists challenged by the appearance of outsider figures. In the first, Ned Dennehy’s insidious, softly spoken Harry arrives from “the 11th floor” to disrupt the relationship of Ron and Ruth (Michael Gould and Hayley Carmichael).

Burn Gorman as Tim in Undergods

The second story focuses on Eric Godon’s Hans, a businessman whose daughter Maria disappears after Hans steals a lucrative idea from a ‘Foreigner’ (Jan Bijvoet). The final section concerns the crack-up experienced by Dominic (Adrian Rawlins) when the presumed-dead first husband of his wife Rachel returns to the household. 

The disruptive outsiders are all white males themselves, which compromises Moya’s claim to have made a picture about white masculinity’s current crisis under perceived threat from the Other. Still, the film’s visions of male insecurity in corporate and domestic contexts resonate, suggesting wider cycles of exploitation and consumption occurring in the office blocks and workhouses that are impressively rendered in its fine, varied design. Throughout, Wojciech Golczewski’s outstanding synth score buzzes and beeps, combining edginess with wonderfully confounding bursts into buoyancy. 

While the reliable Kate Dickie makes her mark as Rachel, becoming obsessively dedicated to the recovery of her returned, silent spouse, Undergods undoubtedly expresses less interest in its female characters. It needs more of Tanya Reynolds, who, suggestively brandishing an E.T.A. Hoffmann volume, brings a challenging spirit to her brief appearance as Hans’s daughter.

The coda also opts for an easy irony that’s unworthy of the film’s most potent moments, the best of which is the finest karaoke meltdown since Happy End (2017), as a smug group rendition of My Way becomes for Rawlins’s drunk and desperate Dominic a savage cri de coeur.

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