‘Surge’: Film Review

Ben Whishaw wigs out as a mad-as-hell security worker on an unhinged London crime spree in Aneil Karia's dynamic, sometimes absurd debut.

Aneil Karia
Ben Whishaw, Ellie Haddington, Ian Gelder, Jasmine Jobson

1 hour 39 minutes

There’s mannered, there’s manic, and then there’s the malfunctioning pinball-machine delirium that Ben Whishaw brings to “Surge”: a blinking, buzzing, flashing clatter of hyper-accelerated impulses, chicken-fried synapses and staggered hypnic jerks that never culminate in sleep. You wouldn’t expect stillness from a film called “Surge,” and in that respect only does Whishaw zig where you expect him to zig — to say nothing of his character, a humdrum airport worker who one day snaps in spectacularly feral fashion, embarking on the unlikeliest of London crime sprees. It’s quite a performance, sure to exhilarate some and aggravate others, and it joins the dots of Aneil Karia’s stylish if somewhat overstimulated debut feature while adding several disconnected ones of its own.

A rare shot of genuinely frenzied energy in British genre cinema, “Surge” seems likely to prompt comparisons to the recent work of Benny and Josh Safdie — in particular, 2017’s Robert Pattinson starrer “Good Time,” another untethered study of an amateur criminal undone by his own escalating neuroses. (By the time it lifts one of that film’s most iridescent images, as a red smoke grenade detonates in the wake of a frantic heist, Karia’s film might be reaching a little too directly for the parallel.) Still, most of “Surge’s” eccentricities are very much its own: As an experiment in steering a potentially tight thriller entirely by one character’s irrational whims, it’s abrasively compelling, even if the go-go-go plotting doesn’t withstand closest scrutiny.

For Karia, who followed up his BAFTA-nominated short “Work” with impressively sleek work on Netflix’s “Top Boy,” this is an auspicious big-screen arrival that ought to beckon bigger assignments requiring the same fast, screw-loose dynamism. Another short of his, 2013’s “Beat,” provided the blueprint for “Surge”: Also starring Whishaw as a social outcast testing the limits of acceptable human behavior, it was a contained firecracker that effectively burned through its idea in 12 minutes. At 99 minutes, this lateral expansion of the same energy, if not quite the same story, flags a little in the final stages. The commitment of Karia and writers Rita Kalnejais and Rupert Jones to not diagnosing their protagonist’s inner psychodrama is both intriguing and a little distancing.

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At first glance, as Stuart Bentley’s camera gradually finds him through the throngs of travelers hurrying through Stansted airport, security official Joseph (Whishaw) seems a pretty staid, gormless everyman, with a polite, robotic manner countering the frazzled anxiety of the people he pats down at the end of the scanner gates. But any airport is a place of disquieting contrasts: a neutral, clinical space nonetheless chattering with human sweat and stress, where a total stranger like Joseph will put a hand to your thigh as a matter of course. With a lonely home life of TV dinners in a north London bachelor flat, and a work life with a curiously thin membrane between the intimate and the impersonal, it doesn’t come as a complete surprise when he violently loses it on the job one day, lashing out at his co-workers to a degree that sets him on a path of irretrievable derangement.

Kalnejais (fresh from her superb work on Shannon Murphy’s “Babyteeth”) and Jones (whose 2017 thriller “Kaleidoscope” likewise played on reality-distorting psychosis) make some effort to plant roots for Joseph’s frail mental state. Airless scenes at the family home with his loveless father (Ian Gelder) and cowed mother (an excellent Ellie Haddington, wringing real poignancy from a tight emotional range) provide some insight into Joseph’s wired awkwardness. Yet the aim throughout is not to give away too much of what’s going on his cranked, fizzing brain. When, on a teetering high from his professional meltdown, he spontaneously pulls off a robbery at a minor high-street bank — claiming to carry a gun he doesn’t possess and being taken at his word — it’s hard to make much sense of the impulse, least of all when the principal objective of the stickup is to pay for a £5 HDMI cable.

Things get more unhinged from there, sometimes mesmerizingly so. An extended sequence that sees a fritzed-out Joseph check into a boutique hotel, dismember its furnishings with surgical zeal and infiltrate a high-end wedding  like some particularly unnerving son of Mr. Bean is inspired, high-wire cinema that would work brilliantly — perhaps even more so — as a short in its own right. At such points, the fidgety verve of Whishaw’s performance fuses so synchronously with the fluorescent, kinetic momentum of Bentley’s handheld lensing that sheer sensation overrides any lingering queries over the hows, whys and whats of the freefall we’re witnessing.

Elsewhere, “Surge” hits distinct, less persuasive comedown phases — repeat robberies, a hasty, inexplicable tryst with a colleague — that make it feel not so much a study in short-circuiting human instinct as a slickly contrived storytelling exercise, with Joseph as the screenwriters’ multi-jointed marionette. It’s a ride either way, and quite the showcase for Whishaw, who, between this and his recent, slithering Uriah Heep in “The Personal History of David Copperfield,” seems to be enjoying the chance to be a bit less orderly on the job for once. His character, for one, would certainly approve.

'Surge': Film Review

Reviewed at Soho Screening Rooms, London, Jan. 16, 2020. (In Sundance Film Festival.) Running time: 99 MIN.

Production: (U.K.) A Rooks Nest Entertainment production in association with BBC Films, BFI. (International sales: Protagonist Pictures, London.) Producers: Julia Godzinskaya, Sophie Vickers. Executive producers: Rose Garnett, Eva Yates, Lizzie Francke, Will Norton, Dave Bishop, Isabelle Stewart. Co-producer: Scott O'Donnell.

Crew: Director: Aneil Karia. Screenplay: Rita Kalnejais, Rupert Jones, from a story by Karia, Kalnejais, Jones. Camera: Stuart Bentley. Editor: Amanda James. Music: Tujiko Noriko.

With: Ben Whishaw, Ellie Haddington, Ian Gelder, Jasmine Jobson

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