Director Aneil Karia’s Surge is a character study of a man unravelling. Joseph (Ben Whishaw) lives an atomized existence. He works as a security screener at the airport. Everyday he pats down travelers, opens their baggage, and even makes some suspicious individuals undress in what has become in our societies an all too commonplace exercise in degradation. Joseph has a detached relationship with his coworkers. He does not engage in workplace small talk. He comes home to a lonely flat, sits in front of the telly, and eats a frozen meal.
There are many irritants orbiting around Joseph’s life. His parents are eccentric, and not eccentric in a good way. They are eccentric in a dysfunctional way. At the entrance to the building where he lives, a man revs his motorcycle’s engine—an annoyance to say the least when what you crave is a quiet flat after a long day of work. And, to make matters worse, a cash machine eats his card.
We see signs of Joseph’s unravelling. He exhibits unusual behaviors. But when the total unravelling finally happens, it happens quickly. Joseph falls into an abyss that leads to deranged behavior at work, on the tube, and even leads him to rob several banks. It should be noted that Ben Whishaw’s performance is outstanding. He inhabits the character’s manic intensity, his frenzied pace, his odd behaviors. Whishaw puts on a fake manic smile as he feverishly walks the streets. It seems like a deranged smile that is half fake customer service smile and half grimace.
It must be said, however, that Whishaw’s performance is not enough to save Surge. Early on one gets the feeling that Karia’s film will deal with a character shaped by contemporary neoliberal society—isolated; emotionally flat; void of wonder; void of alternative choices; caught up in a job and a society that is essentially a control society of security checkpoints, cameras, and cops. But, as the film progresses, the suddenness and severity of Joseph’s odd behavior seems to have an internal cause.
In which case, if that is what Karia is attempting to capture in Surge, then one wonders—what is the point? Surge does not raise further questions for the viewer, it does not intrigue, it feels like a straight-ahead story about a man who is suffering from a mental health collapse. If there were more varied reasons for Joseph’s collapse other than a subjective psychopathology, then it was never made clear to the viewer. If you’re looking for more layers, Surge will not give them to you.
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