We’ve all been Joseph, Ben Whishaw’s hair down, let loose, dance (and steal and fight) like nobody’s watching character at least once in our lives; in our imagination at least; what would happen if I were to literally and physically confront and provoke everyone and everything without fear of real consequence? To activate and, not unleash, but allow the innate, uncivilised being within to substitute for the conformist presence that we must be so as not to upset, anger, disrupt or disturb the status quo of regular life? Almost limitless opportunities, apparently. Almost.
Films that I refer to/potentially spoil in this article:
– Surge (dir. Aneil Karia, 2020)
– Falling Down (dir. Joel Schumacher, 1993)
– The Machinist (dir. Brad Anderson, 2005)
– The Master (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012)
– Nightcrawler (dir. Dan Gilroy, 2014)
– Punch Drunk Love (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson, 2002)
– Heaven Knows What (dir. Josh & Benny Safdie, 2014)
– Good Time (dir. Josh & Benny Safdie, 2017)
– Uncut Gems (dir. Josh & Benny Safdie, 2019)
– They Live (dir. John Carpenter, 1988)
– Fight Club (dir. David Fincher, 1999)
– American Beauty (dir. Sam Mendes, 1999)
– Joker (dir. Todd Phillips, 2019)
It’s no surprise that, in a Falling Down-esque manner, when airport security officer Joseph spontaneously decides that he’s had enough of not only his job but apparently every civilised convention known to man, he finds himself financially, masculinely and sexually liberated due to his newfound confidence. Though only one person, a colleague whom he sleeps with in a moment of mutual lust, seems to value Joseph’s persona change, the restrictive weights of personal anxiety momentarily lifted and replaced with a proactive attitude, no excuses, no ifs and buts. The triggering incident that encourages Joseph’s change of character is when he offers to buy a replacement TV cable for the aforementioned co-worker and goes out of his way to get one from the shop. Albeit a minor but generous errand, it sets into motion a series of chaotic and seemingly uncontrollable events, which Joseph learns to just go along with rather than aggravate.
It’s relatively unclear as to what makes Joseph tick aside from the blatant. There’s the relatable surface level material: despising the petty staff room work banter, the trivial filler chat on shift, repressing the rage at snarky comments from your colleagues and occasionally your family. There are hints that Joseph has been on the brunt of everything for a long time. He “ruins” his own birthday surprise by entering the kitchen unannounced whilst his mother prepares a cake for him and consequently scolds him, and he’s subject to unsympathetic comments at work after dealing with unaccommodating customers. You feel exasperated for him when his mother comments on how loudly he swallows his water. Interestingly, this is about all we’re shown of Joseph’s backstory. These fresh and spontaneous incidents that hint at a vast back catalogue of prior teases and irritating comments are justifiable enough for Joseph to allow himself to finally cross the line and surge, if you will. Once he’s crossed the line, he’s comfortable in his belief that these individual, trivial components of this culmination “don’t matter”. In a devilishly liberating sense but far less comedic, Surge feigns similarities to the iconic breakfast scene in Falling Down, where we, as humans, exemplify just how petty and difficult we’ve made things for ourselves, how interactions in just about any sales-focused customer-focused environments are. To see Joseph go against the grain in such social conventions is certainly a daydream for many of us; one of the more entertaining sequences sees him crash a wedding and literally just hang around, eating and dancing manically until the end as everybody seems too afraid to move him on. By this point, we realise that the title “Surge” is referencing many things: a surge of power, a surge of rage, physical surges in the form of dance and uncontained twitches, and so on.
Ben Whishaw joins the league of actors playing gangly reclusive weirdos at the end of their tethers: Christian Bale in The Machinist, Joaquin Phoenix in The Master, Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler, now Ben Whishaw as Joseph, and his performance is terrific. Though there may be a constant flow of “surges” in the form of tick-like neck twists, jaw-gurns and moments of intense scalp scratching that become to feel a little overplayed and consequently less impactful each time, Whishaw managers to surprise and entice throughout the entirety of the film. Occasional unprovoked giggles from a speed-walk commute from point A to B are mysterious and inviting as to what he’s thinking about or planning next. These constitute some of the best moments, the moments that seem to generate a genuine and inspired spontaneity where even the camera is caught off-guard by Whishaw’s random gyrations and spasms; a fantastic one that parallels Adam Sandler’s terrific twitch at a dinner date in Punch Drunk Love is when a car drives by booming loud bass hip-hop music and Joseph cannot contain his bursts of dance. Alternatively, pre-meltdown, Joseph’s outbursts are teething with explosive restricted rage. A weird, petty customer questioning him about his uniform is met with such an intense and frightening glare of pure indescribable, predatorial hatred, an epic portrayal of canned despisal that Whishaw completely and originally makes his own.
The title Surge seems to be about the surge of many things, a surge of power, responsibility, freedom of body, mind and soul. Whatever the surge is referring to, directly or indirectly, can be seen flowing through Joseph both physically and in his loose decision-making. Throughout the first act, Joseph seems to be tempting fate, chewing down on the glass he drinks from. He craves for it to smash, just to create a chasm within his hapless void of existence he’s experiencing, a symptom of the people who are unbearably bored and fed up with the occasional emptiness of ordinary living. When it finally does smash, cutting his mouth, it’s an unusually satisfying release, an invitation to take things further (further provoked by his unbearable mother worrying more about getting blood on the carpet than her bleeding-from-his-face son). Joseph goes from confronting his obnoxiously noisy neighbour to destroying an expensive hotel room to developing an addiction to robbing banks; the hotel room scene, in particular, is especially symbolic of his repressed human desire to destroy. He makes the unnecessary and unprovoked process look so orderly and purposeful, despite being born out of a chaos-craving curiosity. Straight-faced, he shreds apart a mattress and giggles as he finds a spring, similar to how a child would as they discover an insect beneath a log. Paradoxically, through Joseph’s lack of end goal motivation comes a subsequent lack of conventional plot. If there is an active question throughout Surge, it’s when will his “luck” run out? When will he get caught for his crimes? Surely, he has no desire to get himself arrested, but instead, a “whatever” attitude is adopted, an acceptance of his nature and allowance of his intrinsic desires to be free to run amok in a civilisation built to constrain such abnormalities, regardless of the consequences. The line is massively blurred for Joseph. For those of us that can relate to the desire to drastically change our lives can still differentiate between the appealing freedom of dancing on the street as opposed to robbing banks, but this is exemplative of what makes Joseph enticing to watch as he carries the film.
Unfortunately, many scenes of chaos feel a little too calculated. It’s hard to not reference the Safdie Brothers’ canon of work, as Karia seems to have adopted a near-identical shooting style. The visuals mirror the surveillance-esque CCTV aesthetic like in Heaven Knows What, Good Time and Uncut Gems, and there’s a similar sense of claustrophobic, continuous energy flowing through the seamlessly bound scenes, taking place in an organic, sporadic city. This sense of organic liveliness is occasionally missing in Surge, but the main component that detracts from this sense of anything-could-happen is heavily artificial dialogue. The performances, atmosphere, character motives and energy are each well established, but the cast is dealt an unfortunate amount of clunky, unrealistic conversation. A noteworthy scene sees Joseph confront his noisy neighbour regarding his constant and unnecessary quadbike revving, an unrealistically passive back-and-forth relay of rhetorical questions: “What the f**k are you doing? How is that your business? You know you block the way in when you’re doing that? And?” Scenes between Joseph and his mother are also exemplative of this and severely dampen any immersion or realism spawned in other scenes.
Nevertheless, the core themes of the film are still largely at present and dwarf these scenes of verbal character interaction. One can’t help but somewhat envy the weirdo that Joseph allows himself to be, nonchalant but fiercely wired, disobedient and free, vocally bemused as he’s upsold at a hotel to a “signature” suite, ridding himself of the social norms of politely acting impressed at such materialism. This irritability at the state of consumerism is perfectly modest; we’ve seen and heard this tale before in film and it’s been effective, but simultaneously difficult to bring new ideas to: OBEY the system in They Live, the iconic moral ethos of Fight Club, “This isn’t life, this is just stuff! And it’s become more important to you than living” in American Beauty. Surge isn’t attempting to make a statement about materialism, nor is it attempting to make a statement about the increasingly relevant/dated concept of television brainwash culture. Joseph has a blatant disdain for the trivial, watching canned laughter TV, not with a vacant disinterest but a focused, spiteful dislike. Again, though, this isn’t pushed any further. Additionally, Surge doesn’t seem interested in assessing the mentality of the people that crave to break free and cause paradoxically fulfilling yet self-destructive chaos, as Joseph does. It’s an observational piece of “what ifs” set in a realistic world of angry, confused, ordinary people. And it’s very easy to watch and follow.
Surge has many moments of greatness, visually portraying the tale of a man who bitterly embraces his distaste for the capitalist modernity we’ve been drafted into all our lives, where right is right and to be wrong is deemed illegal and/or weird. Occasionally, however, Karia pushes this line a little too far; how weird is too weird? Early on, Joseph slyly strokes the jacket of a woman on a train, his child-like curiosity being engaged and pursued. He then sniffs the coat, his eyes dead and wide, his face pressed against this clueless woman in broad daylight. It’s these moments that detract from both the relatability of the character and the story as a whole. When Joseph’s motives are less foggy, less Joker but more Tyler Durden without a cause, naturally, the socio-political ideas regarding disobedience, human behaviour and social moral codes become thoroughly intriguing. One brief moment that displays excellence is when Joseph’s card is swallowed by a cash machine in a corner shop. The Asian shop owner informs him that “you need to contact to your bank”, to which Whishaw, English, repeats word-for-word, almost spiteful of his quality of speaking. It’s hardly a racist attack, but it’s telling of the something that lies deeper than Joseph’s surface-level irritability, a scarcely seen display of nastiness, a glimmering reveal of the demons that can arise when stress is continuously piled up.
Though laced with stereotypes regarding people who take letting loose to the next level (bank robberies, spontaneous sex, patronisingly useless diagnosis’ from friends and family: “what’s going on inside that head of yours?”) Surge is an enticing joy-ride carried by a magnificently exciting Ben Whishaw. It’s difficult to tell whether the film is more of a stylistic exercise for feature debut director Aneil Karia, or whether the subtext is intentionally subtle to provoke and encourage conversation as opposed to merely spoon-feeding ideas of anarchy. Instead, surface-level observations regarding chaos are witnessed but not explored. Thematically though, this is very fitting; why should chaos be explored? It’s the essence of punk. The counterpoint is that, inevitably, many will question “the point” and be left with an empty narrative. A fantastic climactic sequence helps to redeem this issue, however, in which Joseph’s extreme casualness and self-perception of immortality is rewarded in an unsurprising manner, further provoking questions regarding the blissfulness of embracing the unknown in any shape or form. Paired with the gloriously calm and triumphant music choice from a band of Indian street performers, the moment boasts pure, zen-like qualities, albeit in the face of something most of us would deem as inevitably awful. Surge is an anthem for those who resonate with Hunter S. Thompson’s immortal quote, “It never got weird enough for me”. A good film to watch after a bad day at work, but more than a bad day: the last, final straw day.