Yet another echo of “Memento” — the masterpiece that launched a thousand mindfucks — David Ocañas’s “Beneath” boasts lush production values and a game leading lady in the service of a muddled script. The movie wants to be kin to “Jacob’s Ladder,” but it’s far closer to the Ellen Barkin clunker “Siesta,” right down to the endless sequences of a blonde meandering in a negligee. “Siesta” had a kinky sensibility that almost leavened its goofiness, but “Beneath collapses under its aspirations to… Well, to whatever a movie with this muddy an agenda aspires.
Poppy Montgomery, best known for her regular gig on TV’s “Without a Trace,” stars as Nadine, a lawyer whose life goes awry when she learns her estranged sister has gone missing. Nadine travels from the U.S. to Mexico, where her sister disappeared, and gets caught in a quagmire of illusion, delusion, and confusion. She sees parallels to other disappearances, receives cryptic and contradictory advice, experiences the same conversations again and again, and stumbles onto riddles such as an assortment of clocks all stuck at the same time.
Some of Nadine’s wandering is atmospheric and weird, even though her dressy, revealing outfits seem like odd costuming for a character who’s supposed to be a harrowing quest. Cinematographer Rob Sweeney and composer John Dickson both layer on the mood with great skill; the interplay between the artful photography and the austere music is among the movie’s successes.
Montgomery tries her damnedest to sell this malarkey, employing the same gravitas that distinguishes her TV work. She never seems self-conscious about personifying a cliché — the Hitchcockian blonde lost in a strange world — and she imbues every scene with persuasive emotion. Her performance is hamstrung because the script doesn’t give her a coherent character to play, so all she can do is make moments feel credible.
Ocañas’ storytelling is hard to pin down. When he gets caught up in dissolve-a-thons and random shots of Mexican street life, he seems unabashedly arty. But when he stages cheap thriller moments — one good jolt, an idiotic bit in which Nadine accidentally reveals her presence while spying on someone — he seems unimaginative. Still, he fills the screen with interesting things, and his camerawork and pacing are confident. There’s something to Ocañas, so it’s probable he’ll thrive with better material in the future.
For now, though, can “Beneath” please be the last elliptical thriller for a while? “The Butterfly Effect” still occupies the bottom rung of this subgenre, but it’s getting difficult to sit through enigmatic suspensers that creep in ever-more-confounding manners toward “mind-blowing” revelations.
More often than not, the climaxes of these pictures are letdowns that cast a pall over everything that came before. And more often than not, as is the case here, filmmakers fail to ground viewers sufficiently in the reality of their stories for viewers to play the game of distinguishing illusion from fact.
“Beneath” plays like a series of random, dull events that happen to involve the same actors, and it just isn’t fun anymore to watch a thriller plot-twist itself into knots.