Notes from Underground

Director: Gary Walkow
Screenwriters: Gary Walkow

Institute History

  • 1996 Sundance Film Festival


Notes from Underground is writer and director Gary Walkow’s adaptation of the novella by Fyodor Dostoevsky. In Walkow’s darkly funny screenplay, the story has been updated from nineteenth-century Russia to contemporary America; the script is part faithful to the original, part invention, and part improvisation. The true essence of the bold and bitter “underground man” (we never learn his name), played with seething meekness by Henry Czerny (critically acclaimed for his role as the chillingly immoral Brother Lavin in The Boys from St. Vincent), rings through as a heady mix of isolation and fury consumes his being, filling him with a need to clarify his urges to himself and the world.

The film begins with a confession before a video camera. The taping is an attempt to come to terms with an episode that occurred twelve years before, a series of seemingly trivial events that provoked such rage and bilious humiliation that they changed his life forever. We see him as he was then, a peevish bureaucrat working in the building department. He lives alone in a drab and damp basement bedsitter. He has no friends, and to combat loneliness occasionally drops in on Simon, an acquaintance from college, now a successful lawyer. The underground man finds Simon with some other college acquaintances planning a going-away party for Zerkov, a smug and supercilious businessman whom he has always despised.

The underground man knows that he is superior to these self-centered goons yet feels jealous of their success and socially inferior to them. Out of spite, and to give himself an opportunity to prove his intellectual superiority, he invites himself to the party. There things go badly. “Notes from Underground is about a man who takes complete responsibility for doing dark things,” says Walkow, who won the Grand Jury Prize at the 1987 Sundance Film Festival with his first feature, The Trouble with Dick. “It is a story about compulsive honesty.”

— Christian Gaines

Screening Details


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