Sunday, August 15, 2010

Underrated Movie #89: Below

Title: Below
Year: 2002
Director: David Twohy
Writers: Lucas Sussman & Darren Aronofsky and David Twohy
Stars: Bruce Greenwood, Olivia Williams, Matthew Davis, Holt McCallany, Zach Galifianakis 
The Story: During World War II, a stir-crazy American submarine crew rescues the survivors of a British medical ship, but before they can get to shore, they come to fear that they are haunted by an malevolent spirt—a spirit that won’t be satisfied until it reveals a horrible secret held by certain members of the crew.
How it Came to be Underrated: The Weinsteins can do a great job distributing a movie, when they feel like it, but they’re more often happy to consign it to the briny deep. After Aronofsky decided he wasn’t going to direct this one himself, Harvey and Bob never regained interest and dumped the final product quietly, which is a shame since it’s an effective little thriller.

Why It’s Fun:
  1. This was the first time I noticed a forceful young actor named Holt McCallany, and he’s shown up occasionally since, but he hasn’t achieved the stardom he deserves. In the fall he’ll star in a well-pedigreed boxing show on FX, so hopefully that will finally be his big break.
  2. Unfortunately, though most of the ensemble cast is great, what hurt the movie the most was that the actual hero is played by a bland Cary Elwes lookalike named Matthew Davis. Of course, the script does him no favors—the character has no special skills!
  3. I’ve tried to write “ghost who wants to expose an injustice” movies before and been stymied by a problematic question: are we rooting for the ghost or not? After all, the ghost is also endangering our heroes, who didn’t know about the injustice, but we want the truth to come out. This movie sidesteps those issues neatly, keeping the focus on the interpersonal and naval conflicts, relegating the supernatural to an elemental, unpersonified force.
  4. The conspiracy is handled well. The trick with conspiracy movies is that it has to be something that can come undone slowly. The heroes should only see a little problem at first, unraveling a string of little lies, one by one. The conspirators are the able to admit bits along the way, adjusting their story to stay out in front of the ultimate truth. The danger is that you wind up with one big “everything you know is wrong” reveal and the rest of the movie just lies there. Inevitably, you’ll have to reveal that big twist in the trailer, and then you’re left with nothing.
  5. And one more tricky area that’s handled well: one problem with a setting like a submarine is that you have to explain everything that could go wrong before it happens, which kills the surprise. This movie does a good job casually mentioning potential dangers-- just enough so that we’ll see recognize the big problems as soon as they actually come up.
If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: I’ve had an appreciation for the perpetually underused Bruce Greenwood ever since he spiced up the last two seasons of “St. Elsewhere” as a sociopathic intern. Around this time he was also great as President Kennedy in Thirteen Days.

How Available Is It?: It’s on DVD and Watch Instantly. I discovered this on DVD just after it came out and then listened to the lively commentary, which has everybody joking around in one room. I found it odd at the time that they let a guy with a pretty small part talk so much but he was very funny, so I started paying attention to Zach Galifianakis. That man is now America’s sweetheart.

Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: The Temptress of the Deep!


Anonymous said...

For me, your most fruitful underrated rec so far. I really enjoyed this one, for all the reasons you mention and then some. I'd like to add that it's one of the better submarine movies I've seen, even without the supernatural elements. Some of the scariest parts, like the waiting for depth charges, are all a part of their everyday WWII undersea life. Bruce Greenwood is great--have you seen him in those two Egoyan films?

Anonymous said...

Speaking from the future, Holt McCallany was on Mindhunter as a co-star