Losing one’s mind is always a tragedy, but losing one’s mind amidst the smothering apathy of an urban cityscape tends to give movies about psychological decay a little extra grist. Films like Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” and William Lustig’s “Maniac” aren’t just about the sad, scary loners at their center; they also speak volumes about everyone in their orbit who dismisses the warning signs or is too caught up in the hustle and bustle to care.
Aniel Karia’s “Surge” enters this particular cinematic canon but, apart from a haunting performance by Ben Whishaw, seems content to hang back along the periphery. “Surge” captures the protagonist’s collapse but shies away from catharsis, judgment, or context. Karia’s film lives in the moment and no matter how overwhelming it may seem, the moment is fleeting.
Whishaw plays Joseph, who works a miserable day job at British Airport Security, patting down passengers whenever a little handheld wand beeps, humiliating everyone involved and never, ever finding anything worth the trouble. He barely registers with his co-workers, who eat his birthday cake and wonder aloud whose birthday it is. His neighbor insufferably revs the motor on his engine at all ours, and his parents are embittered, lonely, and of absolutely no help whatsoever.
It’s only a matter of time before Joseph snaps, but Whishaw is a captivating performer even when everything is left unsaid. Eyes sunken, feet shuffling, Joseph doesn’t look like a zombie. He looks like he’s dead. He’s a barely functional fleshy husk. Whishaw is a remarkable actor who often adds wit and sensitivity to his characters, and to see him stripped of anything recognizably human is poignant in and of itself.
Unfortunately, “in and of itself” is all we have to go on in “Surge.” Co-written by Karia, Rupert Jones and Rita Kalnejais, the film doesn’t burden the audience with backstory. Only a brief altercation with a disturbed man at an airport, who recognizes Joseph and implies a life our protagonist is trying to put behind him, offers any sort of a code key. The scene strips “Surge” of its ability to be purely universal while simultaneously failing to provide the additional information necessary to give the film a more pointed specificity.
After a particularly crappy visit to his parents’ house, Joseph has had all he can stand, and over the course of about 24 hours, he deteriorates from a panic attack to a complete mental breakdown. He falls apart at work, calling public attention to the futility of security theater and abandoning his post to solve a menial chore for a co-worker he’s crushing on, Lily (Jasmine Jobson, “Toy Boy”), which then spirals in Kafka-esque fashion into bureaucratic stupidity and, finally, felony robbery.
With no going back, Joseph proceeds to wander through the city doing whatever he pleases, which is rarely violent but almost universally destructive. It’s undeniably a satisfying journey for the character, and Whishaw clearly relishes the opportunity to shuffle off all semblance of propriety. It’s a showcase for a fabulous actor who deserves every chance for showing off that he can get, and the initially withdrawn but eventually hypertensive cinematography of Stuart Bentley (“Muscle”) backs every one of Whishaw’s plays.
Watching this story play out from afar, however, all of Joseph’s lashing out is only slightly more dramatically satisfying than his oppression. He’s briefly able to connect with Lily, and eventually has an invaluable exchange with his long-suffering mother Joyce (Ellie Haddington, “Enola Holmes”), but the bulk of the film’s running time is dedicated to his outlandish and unfocused behavior. He doesn’t seem to be acting out of principle or social critique, misguided or otherwise — he’s just doing what feels good.
“Surge” seems to be suggesting that we would all like, at one point or another, to shirk off social norms and simply do and/or take what we want, maybe even dismantle a hotel room or two. And perhaps there’s a nugget of truth in that, but normally it would be the start of a conversation instead of the end of it. Joseph’s journey may be briefly intriguing, but it’s ultimately hollow and sad. The character has very little impact on his world and does little to spark conversation outside of it, other than inarguable observations about the brilliance of Whishaw’s captivating performance.
The path of excess doesn’t so much lead to the palace of wisdom in “Surge.” It leads to missed opportunities.
“Surge” opens in theaters and on demand September 24.