This film was screened at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.
Quiet, depressed loner Joseph (Ben Whishaw) works security at a busy London airport. It’s his birthday, but his colleagues don’t care to remember. After a long morning of endless pat-downs and an unpleasant visit with his irritable and disappointed parents, things begin to go haywire in Joseph’s mind. He loses control and takes to the streets on a frenzied 24-hour adventure.
“Surge” is the story of a mentally ill man struggling to function within society’s parameters of normalcy. Joseph is an angry white male with built-up rage boiling inside, which is one of the scariest things you can imagine in today’s world. There isn’t much premise to speak of, and the film is disappointing because none of these issues are explored in greater depth.
Director Aneil Karia is proficient at building a sense of dread early on and paired with Whishaw’s unrestrained performance, the tension that Joseph will eventually snap borders on being unbearable. We watch as he gradually becomes more unhinged until he has a complete meltdown at work, eventually leading to a series of careless bank robberies that mark him as a wanted man.
This film reminds me of “The Joker,” as one thing after another goes wrong for Joseph. At least people aren’t mean to him at every turn (he’s not teased and thankfully he never turns to violence), but this world feels like a more realistic and more frightening story of a mentally unstable man. It’s compelling at first, but ends up being an uncomfortable, long and drawn out story of a guy wandering around the city on a reckless, deranged journey.
Karia relies on the overuse of a handheld camera and while the intention is probably to portray Joseph’s jumbled, confused state of mind, the incessant shaking is the most off-putting element of the film. The direction is mostly well-suited for this type of storytelling, but the camerawork is annoying.
Whishaw gives an over-the-top, maniacal performance that’s showy and skilled, even if it feels as though he’s trying too hard. He is the most effective early in the story when he’s trying so desperately to suppress his urges. Once the threads have completely unraveled, it’s a little outrageous.