Sundance 2020: “Surge” Throws Ben Whishaw Over the Edge

Sundance Surge Photo: Sundance Institute

Ben Whishaw shakes off the shackles of Paddington Bear in Surge, an intense if meandering thriller about a man driven to the brink.

(This review is part of our coverage of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.)

“I am so. Fucking. TIRED!” shouts Joseph (Ben Whishaw), a twitchy airport security worker at the end of a long, aggravating day to a neighbor who won’t stop revving his four-wheeler outside their apartment building. We don’t know what kind of mental health history Joseph has, and Aneil Karia‘s propulsive thriller Surge gives us little to work on in that department. We’re left to intuit whether he’s had something off in his head for a while, or if this is that old Joker idiom about it only taking one bad day to turn a regular person into a maniac. But as the stresses mount, and Joseph responds accordingly to his frayed-wire madness, Surge becomes less interested in the whys than the hows of a man realizing the precarious nature of our social fabric, pulling gleefully at the threads to see if it unravels.

Effectively a feature-length take on Karia’s previous short Beat (which also starred Whishaw as a man on the brink), Surge is an exercise in taking our deepest, darkest impulses to their furthest conclusion. To watch Whishaw’s Joseph in the latter half of this film is to watch an extended version of one of those scenes in a movie where a frustrated character trashes a room and flings things to the floor; there’s a transgressive joy in it, and a deep sadness too.

From what we see of his life, Joseph’s world is not a happy one: his airport work –with its sweaty patdowns and nervous banter — immediately places him in an antagonistic, intimate dynamic with the people he meets. His parents (Ian Gelder and Ellie Haddington) are, respectively, deeply withholding and frustratingly overbearing. You get the sense that Joseph is constantly pinballing between situations, perpetually terrified that he’ll do something wrong or, worse, impolite — it’s enough to drive anyone mad. His home life, or lack of one, gives him few outlets for positivity, with no romantic partner to speak of (save for a coworker (Jasmine Jobson) he unhealthily pines for). And he has a disquieting tic where he gnaws on dinner forks and drinking glasses, the latter eventually breaking in his mouth in one disturbing scene. Society, it seems, is gnawing on him right back.

It’s not too long before all these stressors make Joseph finally snap, resulting in an hour-long English riff on Falling Down (or, as I like to call it, A Jolly Tumble). What starts as a breakdown at work turns into a last-ditch effort to ingratiate himself to his coworker by fixing her TV, which leads to a Safdie Brothers-caliber descent into neurotic madness. There are more than a few parallels to the Safdies’ 2017 thriller Good Time (right down to a bluffed bank robbery that results in an ink pack going off), but the focus is more on social breakdown than the tragic follies of a flawed protagonist. At this point, Joseph welcomes trouble, but he’s always able to escape it, to an almost increasingly implausible degree as the film continues.

Still, if you surrender yourself to the idea that society has degraded so much that someone like Joseph can get away with so much gleeful mayhem, there is a wry humor that sets in in the latter half of Surge‘s journey that helps amplify the single-mindedness of it all. Most of the major action takes place over a single night, Stuart Bentley’s handheld cinematography getting plenty of long-take workouts as Joseph’s mania compounds. But try as they might to build Joseph’s marathon of madness to a larger point about man’s inhumanity to man, or white male rage, it all ends up feeling a bit thin. He just ends up seeming like an asshole, and takes it out on a lot of people who don’t deserve it.

As for Whishaw, he’s clearly relishing the chance to let loose in a way his prim and proper British lads of old (Paddington, Q) don’t allow; whether you’re on board with his fidgety impulses and awkward Joker smiles is in the eye of the beholder. They feel novel and transgressive, then they start to get old, then they keep going long enough for them to feel like a kind of sad genius. Whatever your mileage for such an actor-y showcase performance, Surge will certainly test it.

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