This review of “Mosquito State” was first published in September 2020 after the film’s premiere at the Venice Film Festival.
On the film-festival circuit, Polish-American filmmaker Filip Jan Rymsza is best known for shepherding the unfinished, long-neglected Orson Welles movie “The Other Side of the Wind” to completion in 2018, and for producing two accompanying documentaries, Morgan Neville’s “They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead” and Ryan Suffern’s short “A Final Cut for Orson.”
“The Other Side of the Wind” and “They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead” both premiered two years ago at the Venice International Film Festival, so it makes sense that Rymsza’s debut as a feature director, “Mosquito State,” debuted at that same festival in 2020, alongside another Rymsza-produced Welles project, the documentary “HOPPER/WELLES.” The creepy, cerebral thriller is bold and weird and wildly unlike anything Welles might have done, though you could probably call it the “Citizen Kane” of Wall Street insect movies.
Then again, it’s the only Wall Street insect movie, and the only film whose protagonist uses a seriously unhealthy fascination with flying, biting insects to create a sophisticated analytic model with which to predict financial markets. As a kind of twisted social commentary, it doesn’t make much sense on paper, but don’t worry: It won’t make much sense on the screen, either, but “Mosquito State” manages to get under your skin and also to find moments of disquieting beauty.
Beau Knapp plays the analyst, Richard Boca, in a performance of unnerving calm and unblinkered insanity. Richard has become wealthy because of an analytic program based on his study of bees; he owns an entire floor in a New York high-rise with a bird’s-eye view of Central Park and seems much more at home in its stark grandeur than when he goes into the office and reveals just how socially inept he is. (“Dumbest smart guy I ever saw,” scoffs a co-worker.)
The film is set in the summer of 2007, which means the financial meltdown will happen within months. And Richard’s models are acting strangely, with unexplained spikes and huge drops; he knows something’s wrong, though none of his colleagues want to stop making tons of money long enough to help him figure it out.
But Richard doesn’t need human help — he can find the answers from the mosquito who snuck into his lavish apartment under his collar, and from the thousands of eggs that mosquito will soon lay in Richard’s bedside water glass.
If that sounds creepy, the movie has been setting us up for this kind of creepiness since the opening credits, which use animation and close-up photography to painstakingly (and quite strikingly) detail the stages of mosquito growth. And it’s also been setting us up through Cezary Skubiszewski’s music, an aggressive character in the movie’s early stages as it does an orchestral imitation of buzzing and swarming mosquitoes, and then slides into some unhinged choral passages.
In other words, the movie promises that it’s going to take us for a ride, and Rymsza delivers on that promise. Richard decides that Wall Street has entered a “runaway world” phase, a “cascading dream that could destabilize the entire market” — but rather than trying to deal with the problem using conventional logic, he slips into surreal dreams and then decides to create a new analytic model patterned after swarming mosquitoes rather than bees.
And what better place to study a swarm of mosquitoes than your own home? Richard turns up his thermostat, leaves smashed fruit around the place and welcomes the insects as they hatch by the hundreds; before long, he’s coming into the office with his face and body cartoonishly swollen by all the bites he does nothing to resist.
(But he doesn’t seem to ever itch, and the bites swell up but never turn red. What’s up with that?)
The images are striking and unsettling, from the cold stylishness of his home to the walls of boxes in the apartment that doubles as a wine cellar to the sight of Richard spreadeagled on his bed clad only in white underwear, his face and body disfigured by bites. He becomes a monstrous creature of his own, wracked with paranoia and hallucination and convinced the mosquitoes are talking to him and he knows what they’re saying.
By an hour into the film, Richard is completely bonkers, and you wonder where the story can go from there. And in a way, Rymsza seems to be grappling with that question, too. He revs up the music again (always effective), zooms in close on the mosquitoes (always unnerving) and goes for the occasional skewed camera angle (which doesn’t have much impact when things are already crazy).
But the movie does eventually find somewhere new to go — and strangely, it’s a place of real beauty born of all the grotesquerie. Creepiness gives way to lyricism as “Mosquito State” enters, well, a mosquito state, or at least Richard’s version of one. It’s still perplexing, and it’ll still make you uncomfortable if, like me, you’ve got an unexpectedly large number of mosquitoes hanging around your own house lately. But it’s also gorgeous, which is not exactly what you’d expect from a movie about all those little bugs and the man who loves them way too much.