From the first few scenes, it seems much of the same will be in store for our couple, stopping at a roadside motel in the desert to catch some badly needed winks after a near-wreck on their way to a wedding in Los Angeles.
Thankfully, “Beneath” then veers off to forge its own path. Not to knock “Vacancy,” which was a well-made entertainment, but I forgot about it as soon as the end credits rolled. In contrast, “Dark” has stuck in my head for days. I even watched in twice in 24 hours just to see if the mild spell it put me in could work again; with little drop-off, it did.
Josh Stewart (“The Collector”) and Jamie-Lynn Sigler (TV’s “The Sopranos”) are Paul and Adrienne, the couple at the core of this low-key, but ambitious indie. The motel clerk, Frank (Chris Browning, “Let Me In”), seems overly friendly in a mighty unsettling manner, but they stay anyway. Frank’s odd behavior is nothing compared to the weird woman (Angela Featherstone, TV’s “The Guardian”) who appears outside their window and in their room, or the weirder man (Afemo Omilami, “The Blind Side”) who accosts Paul in the coffee shop and starts talking about his moral compass.
What’s going on here? Teasingly, writer/director Chad Feehan not only strings viewers along, but cuts away from this main plot in order to fill you in on the back stories of other characters. It shakes up the timeline, not to mention your comfort level. You won’t get distracted in wanting to assemble all the puzzle pieces, because Feehan structures it in such a way that the proceedings don’t seem scattershot. Rather than feeling confused, you’re that much more intrigued. If the ending (or is that endings?) is disappointing (and it is, dangerous close to being classified a cop-out), at least “Beneath” arrives at such via a creative path, taking at least one side road toward disturbing, hard-to-shake material.
Performances? Browning impresses in a role that seems tailor-made for James LeGros; Featherstone deserves points for sheer courage; Sigler remains in “superficial Meadow” mode; and Stewart radiates a little too much arrogance to attain true sympathy. But that’s not the point — Feehan shoots for mood, and earns it, even when that subsequent viewing reveals the pace to be a little lagging. No matter what the speedometer reads, the time spent watching this atmospheric mystery is not wasted.
“Beneath the Dark” isn’t particularly deep — just deeper than the shallow fare from which pricier efforts dare not stray. —Rod Lott