In a desolate and decrepit cityscape, presumably in the time after some unspecified apocalypse, K (Johann Myers) and Z (Géza Röhrig) drive a garbage truck, picking up the dead bodies that lie strewn along their route. This is just the framing device for writer/director Chino Moya’s first feature, which drifts and digresses into other stories, all centring on a man whose familial equilibrium is disrupted by the sudden arrival of an outsider. A neighbour (Ned Dennehy) shows up at Ron (Michael Gould) and Ruth’s (Hayley Carmichael) door; a foreign inventor (Jan Bijvoet) proposes a project to Hans (Eric Godon) and Dom’s (Adrian Rawlins) life is turned upside down when his wife Rachel’s (Kate Dickie) first husband (Sam Louwyck) mysteriously reappears after fifteen years.
In the stories involving married couples, Moya seems to be building an allegory about the lack of communication, drawing parallels between the collapse of a marriage—whether through design or coincidence, it could be argued that we see both represented—and the wider collapse we see in the framing device. The middle story also deals with family relationships but, with Hans’ daughter (British up and comer Tanya Reynolds, impressing in a small part) going missing, initially seems as though it is going to move away from the blackly comic tone of the rest of the film for something more in a thriller vein.
It’s never entirely clear how literally, even within the narrative, Moya wants us to take these stories. Are they real cautionary tales from some before time, or are we to see them as they are framed; extensions of a dream and a bedtime story? The function is largely the same though, whichever of these things is the case.
The aesthetic varies throughout the film, from the grey and broken dystopia, with all the men shaven-headed, in the wraparound story to the cold and otherwise empty apartment building Ron and Ruth live in and the sinister suburbia (redolent of the recent Vivarium) and putrid pastels of Dom’s home and work lives respectively. Again, the middle story is the outlier here, with something closer to a period look that then bleeds into another aesthetic as the segment ends.
Moya’s allegory here, like quite a few we’ve seen lately, manages to feel perhaps more timely and real because of the semi-apocalyptic times we find ourselves living in. The deadpan tone, which keeps the film from becoming overly dark, is perhaps most effective in the last segment. In it’s own way this part is as hellish as the post-apocalyptic scenes, with Dom finding his marriage falling apart as his wife—a typically excellent Dickie delivering the film’s standout turn—gets sucked in to a new-age method of helping her former husband Sam, who has returned mute and affectless, but the identical houses lining his street and the living corporate video of a boss (Burn Gorman; grating, but very much on purpose) he has to impress suggesting that things weren’t exactly perfect before. This and the section with Ron, Ruth and the neighbour who comes to stay when he gets locked out, with an immediate effect on their seemingly content domesticity, are both acidly funny, with strong performances all round.
Though less explicitly divided and more consistent than many portmanteau films, Undergods nevertheless suffers from some of the familiar issues that crop up in them. There is more consistency to the tone here, but the middle story feels disconnected from the rest of the sequences, but for a few brief moments at the end. The loop that Moya is constructing, as well as his allegory, would arguably function just as well without this segment. That loop is also a sticking point for me, it closes logically enough, but does so by at least implicitly invoking my least favourite device in all of cinema. This isn’t to say that the story of Hans and the inventor isn’t as well made and atmospherically photographed as the rest of the film, it just sticks out in tone and purpose. Even if it doesn’t entirely come together, there is more than enough here; in the interestingly international casting, the writing and the visuals, to show that Moya is someone worth watching for the future.