We all like to think we have control—kings of our proverbial castles. It’s all a ruse, though. We’re actually slaves to a system that seems more and more likely to fail with each new day and each new declaration that its imminent demise is a call to arms to save it rather than move on and evolve. That false sense of control is thus a mechanism we use to combat the fear of knowing how little we truly possess. We dream of other men failing so as not to realize that unfortunate soul is probably a future version of ourselves. We play God opposite those we believe are beneath us because we feel the pressure of those above doing the same. And there’s absolutely no way out.
Filmmaker Chino Moya is optimistic, though. Rather than present his debut feature Undergods as an unavoidably prescient vision of where we’re headed, the music video director sees it as a cautionary tale instead. Even with everything that’s happening surrounding COVID-19, market collapses, and the generally self-centered position many have taken in response, Moya still hopes his film will be something we laugh about because it depicts what could have been and not what was. The jury remains out on that distinction, but it’s possible we might yet turn this ship around after learning from our mistakes. It’s possible we won’t turn into jaded, survivalist scavengers like K (Johann Myers) and Z (Géza Röhrig) disposing of corpses when they’re not profiting off the creation of more.
These two hardened, gasoline-guzzling biological waste disposal workers are our entry point into the wild, overlapping lives at the center of Moya’s creation. They drive around a desolate city of derelict buildings shrouded in the monochrome grey of fog (shooting in Estonia lends a unique look both in this setting and the more familiar environments of the stories still to come), talking about their dreams and nightmares in vivid enough detail for us to see them play out whether or not their progression goes farther than the words being spoken. K and Z wonder when it’ll be their time to get loaded into the back of their truck. If people with everything can find themselves dead on the street, why wouldn’t those with nothing like them follow suit?
One reason might be that they’re fully aware of their status. They have no illusions that they’re somehow on top of any food chain worth saving them. Rather than think they have control over the future, they ensure control over their present. How many of you can say the same? How many of you are ruthless enough to survive a dog-eat-dog world by supplying the cattle in order to not become the cattle yourself? Ron (Michael Gould) can’t say it. A “ghost” roaming around an empty apartment in K’s dreams, he’s a boring white man stuck in a boring white man’s existence. Instead of looking over his shoulder for enemies, Ron invites them in out of hubris only to self-destruct from the jealousy, rage, and insecurity that ensue.
Is his life a fabrication of K’s subconscious? Or is it his? That Ron’s story continues to introduce the next of Moya’s threads (one featuring Khalid Abdalla’s Octavius and his daughter, which in turn introduces the next via a bedtime yarn starring Eric Godon’s Hans) reveals nothing besides the potential for both. That potential proves more important than any answer, however, because it exposes how the aforementioned sense of control is a lie. K may not be pulling Ron’s strings, but those strings are definitely being pulled. His bosses pull them. Society pulls them. His self-doubt pulls them. Ron is a product of his environment and its lie that he’s a master of his domain. So when that domain gets threatened, he has no choice but to implode.
The result is rage: white male rage. How dare Harry (Ned Dennehy) take advantage of Ron’s kindness upon knocking at his door with a plea for shelter after locking himself out of his? How dare Harry make Ron’s wife Ruth (Hayley Carmichael) laugh and feel alive? This intruder uncovers Ron’s failings by doing everything he should have been doing and it makes his blood boil. Harry has no right to fix things around the apartment. He has no right to touch his “property” (yes, Ron is the type of man who will admit to feeling ownership over his spouse). Will Ron have the mettle to take back his insufficient and faulty control over this shabby domicile? Will he throw a tantrum, overestimate his power, and ultimately lose everything?
Ask the same questions of Hans and Dominic (Adrian Rawlins). The former is a once-powerful figure willing to cheat a foreigner (Jan Bijvoet) out of an idea because he believes his connections to execute it are more valuable than the idea itself. The latter is sad-sack middle management going through life in an effort to achieve checkpoint expectations rather than earn what those goals (marriage to Kate Dickie’s Rachel and a slow-moving career under Burn Gorman’s Tim) have to offer. They see their intruders (Bijvoet and Rachel’s ex-husband Sam, as played by Sam Louwyck, respectively) as destroyers because they can’t acknowledge the reality that they’ve forgotten to care for the foundation of their lives teetering above impending oblivion. Their quest for victory, however, will open their eyes.
They might open yours too if you’re also a white male prone to projecting rage about your abject complacency through privilege rendering you expendable onto an “other.” For those who aren’t, however, these stories should conversely make you laugh. That’s what watching insecure little boys pretending to be men experience the misfortune that the society they built foists upon the less unfortunate every day does to me. Ron, Hans, and Dominic’s hubris takes them to a precipice their otherwise cushy and boring lives (Maddison Whelan as Octavius’ daughter Horatia calling Hans’ story boring is pricelessly apt) shielded them from ever having to prepare to confront. And their just desserts are very satisfying in their violently abrupt ends as set to Frank Sinatra’s loaded “My Way” lyrics.
Moya has a great eye for locales and his production and art designers go above and beyond utilizing what Eastern Europe has to offer. The way his script folds in on itself to blur the line between present, past, future, and fiction will probably frustrate some, but I found it utterly fascinating considering how seamless the connections are despite the disparate juxtaposition of visuals from Ron, Hans, and Dominic’s worlds to K and Z’s dystopia. I think that’s part of the point, though. It’s all a dystopia. Men like the first trio simply refuse to admit as much when reaching for unattainable stars. In the end we discover that there is no demarcating line. Some of us are simply too deluded to see that we’re already in Hell.
Undergods is playing as part of Fantasia International Film Festival’s 2020 online edition.