Chino Moya has style, and style is his saving grace. Without it, Undergods, his mise en abyme-obsessed feature debut, wouldn’t be worth watching outside of a few glorious moments of Kate Dickie coming unhinged. Undergods has ideas about the perils posed by capitalism to every sad bastard living in capitalist societies who doesn’t already have first pick on the food chain: Theirs is a neverending and fruitless scrabble to the top, made tragic by a refusal to accept the futility of the hustle. But every and any movie about capitalism expresses the same ideas, and Moya doesn’t add much to the critique outside of slick aesthetics and bravura craftsmanship.
Style can be substance, of course, and in Undergods that’s especially true. Taking after an anthology film conceit while building a structure that’s all Moya’s, the story hands off the narrative torch from character to character as the large, scattered cast pass through each others’ plot lines to mundane effect: They’re ships in the night skimming over choppy waters they’re doomed to sink beneath. Moya so casually connects Undergods’ various chapters that understanding his characters, much less learning their names or what specifically motivates them beyond the traditional motivations capitalism inspires in people, becomes nearly impossible. We never quite learn who they are. We never quite learn their drives. We never quite learn why we should care about their plights other than their extreme mirroring of our own.
We do get to know Moya’s semi-narrators, K (Johann Myers) and Z (Géza Röhrig)—two men living in the nameless futuristic dystopian landscape Undergods is set against—whose days consist of swigging gasoline and trading yarns in their truck as they drive around picking up corpses and wanderers. The former: Meat. The latter: Bodies to sell into slavery. There’s the movie’s first hammer-subtle capitalist commentary, to be followed by many others, but K and Z’s conversations and harvesting exploits seamlessly weave one tale into the next with such dexterity that it’s hard to find a moment to roll your eyes at the obviousness of the film’s judgments.
The other beneficial factor that keeps Undergods from collapsing is the question of who, exactly, is giving these accounts, and whether they’re even real or really happening. K and Z present the film’s three segments as dreams: K introduces the first as a ghost story about Ron (Michael Gould), a dreary man stuck in a dreary existence who has his dreary days shaken up by the arrival of a stranger, Harry (Ned Dennehy). Harry claims he’s Ron’s neighbor, that he’s locked out and that he needs a place to crash. So Ron and his wife Ruth (Hayley Carmichael) let Harry stay with them, and Harry fixes the shower, and the curtains, and buys his own snacks, and also fucks Ruth. That’ll add pizzazz to your unfulfilling routine. But does Ron exist anywhere but K’s own head? The movie never answers.
K and Z’s repeated resurfacing throughout Undergods to kick off the next section or maybe toss a carcass in their truck suggests that yeah, all these awful things we see happen before us actually do happen within the film’s confines. But maybe it doesn’t matter either way. Moya has wicked fun with the exercise, keeping answers about reality to himself as he links Ron to Octavius (Khalid Abdalla), who tells his daughter, Horatia (Maddison Whelan), a bedtime story about Hans (Eric Gordon), an unscrupulous businessman who pays for his sins when he rips off a foreign eccentric (Jan Bivjoet), then links Hans back to K and Z; then he links K and Z to engineer Dom (Adrian Rawlins), his dissatisfied wife Rachel (Dickie), their teenage son (Jonathan Case) and Rachel’s ex-husband, Sam (Sam Louwyck).
Watching Moya successfully bind together these unrelated people, woes and lives is absorbing, like a magic trick. At the moment just before Undergods’ various transitions, we wonder how exactly Moya will pull it off this time, and then he does. Clearly he’s a filmmaker of talent. But Undergods lacks elsewhere, and the lacking becomes apparent once the movie ends and the trick is over. Once the credits roll, we know indisputably what a Moya film looks like. What we don’t know is what Moya thinks about his subject other than what nearly every director in the history of cinema thinks about that particular subject. As an arrival, Undergods impresses, but what’s under the surface needs finessing.
Director: Chino Moya
Writer: Chino Moya
Starring: Johann Myers, Géza Röhrig, Michael Gould, Ned Dennehy, Hayley Carmichael, Eric Gordon, Jan Bivjoet, Kate Dickie, Adrian Rawlins, Sam Louwyck
Release Date: May 7, 2021
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.