Polish director Jan Komasa’s “Corpus Christi” was the biggest surprise of this year’s Oscar nominees in the Best International Feature Film category, slipping into the final five over a number of better-known films with its nuanced and electric portrait of a young ex-con masquerading as a priest at a rural church.
And now, a little more than five months after “Corpus Christi” lost to “Parasite” and debuted in theaters, Komasa is back with “The Hater.” Like the Oscar-nominated film, “The Hater” is about a feral, charismatic young man engaged in elaborate deceptions – but in this case, it’s set in a more modern and urban world of dance clubs and social media, where it’s harder for the film to have the same kind of impact as “Corpus Christi.”
The film was an early casualty of the coronavirus: Its early-March theatrical release in Poland ended prematurely because of the pandemic, and a planned U.S. premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival was a casualty of that festival’s cancellation. But the Tribeca juries still viewed the film’s online, and “The Hater” won the award as the best international narrative film before being picked up by Netflix, which released it this week.
Despite the themes it has in common with “Corpus Christi,” “The Hater” is far more closely linked to an earlier film of Komasa’s, the 2011 drama “Suicide Room.” In that film, a teenage boy becomes desperate as his life falls apart after he’s mocked on social media sites – a situation that is flipped in “The Hater,” in which the central figure is a young man who becomes an expert in destroying lives on the internet. (Some actors show up in both films as well, and certain scenes in the new film echo the older one.)
The young man at the center of the action is Tomasz (Maciej Musialowski), who at the beginning of the film is expelled from law school for plagiarism. As he spews a line of hogwash in an attempt to save himself, and then gives up and asks the teacher who’s just thrown him out if she’ll please sign the textbook she wrote, Tomasz appears a little desperate, but also slick and soulless. And when he uses the signed textbook to show the Krasuckis, well-off family friends who are financing his education, just how well he’s doing, it’s clear that lying and conniving is second nature to him.
And so are tactics that go beyond that, because Tomasz “accidentally” leaves a phone behind in the couple’s house, and then uses a second phone to eavesdrop on the mocking conversation they and their daughter, Gabi, have about him when he leaves. They dismiss him as a rube, which somehow drives him to prove himself by talking his way into a trial assignment for Big Buzz PR, a sleazy agency that seems to specialize in spreading rumors on social media.
Tomasz turns out to be surprisingly good at this, in short order destroying the career of a young fitness guru by planting fake stories that her elixir turns hands yellow. Then he moves on to using social media to derail the candidacy of Pawel Rudnicki, a liberal politician running for mayor. A calm sociopath ready to do whatever it takes, he goes after the candidate partly because Tomasz himself is a secret white nationalist, partly because the Krasuckis support Rudnicki, partly because he’s trying to impress Gabi with his suavity and power and partly just because he can.
To a certain degree, Komasa approaches the story in a calm, austere manner befitting the face that Tomasz presents to the world; it’s a story of terrible things done quietly, a cautionary tale for the age in which warfare can be fought from the anonymity of a computer keyboard.
But we already know that Tomasz is himself something of a fake, so the dexterity with which he wields the power of social media gets less and less believable as his schemes escalate. He engineers a minor scandal with a barrage of fake posts, whips up a sex scandal and on the side uses online gaming to recruit a far-right numbskull for a plot that goes way beyond web-based reputation smearing. At some point in the movie, virtually everyone he knows mistrusts Tomasz, with good reason – and yet they all forgive him and think that they’re the ones who have wronged him.
By the end, the restrained movie has turned florid and lurid; let’s just say that this isn’t the first time a moviemaker has combined Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with a bit of the old ultra-violence. And by the time things calm down again, the silence is oppressive, not calming.
“The Hater” is occasionally effective as a vision of the unnerving power of fake news and social-media manipulation, a premise we can easily embrace these days. And Komasa can be a stylish director, whether he’s going for quiet menace, shooting in a silent dance club where everyone hears the music through glowing headphones or staging bursts of startling violence. But the film drags on until the story becomes harder to buy and the central character harder to remain interested in; at a certain point, Tomasz stops being fascinating or even threatening, and simply becomes tiresome.