Surge is a bleak, cinematically claustrophobic take on a young white man lashing out against contemporary society. It stars Ben Whishaw in the central role of isolated Joseph, who works at a London airport as a security officer in customs. The one place no one wants to be for any longer than they have to. Joseph’s life outside of work is dull and meaningless, so unsurprisingly a deep vitriol builds up inside of him which eventually snaps at a grating family meal, when he breaks a glass inside his mouth.
From there, Joseph goes on a reckless rampage across London as he desperately searches for some kind of release from a contorted and frustrating life. The film is a feature debut for director Aneil Karia and his vison is absolutely uncompromising. Right up until the final moments, the film is relentlessly bleak. There is no doubt, it will be difficult to watch for some, but equally, there is no doubt that this is Karia’s intention.
The opening shot of the film evokes that of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974). It is a wide of a constantly moving crowd inside of an airport. A slow zoom finds Joseph within the crowd, and from there the film never leaves his subjective POV. The world the film presents is bitterly ugly; almost everyone Joseph encounters is either bad-tempered or just generally miserable. That being said, Joseph himself isn’t a character to be sympathised with; he never takes any moral actions to improve his life, yet somehow you still don’t completely reject him as the protagonist. Undoubtedly, Ben Whishaw’s casting plays an important part in this; having also played Paddington Bear, it is very hard for the character of Joseph to be completely unlikeable.
Outside of this opening shot, there are no establishing shots in Surge; Karia and cinematographer Stuart Bentley employ tight focal lengths and a shallow depth of field to keep the viewer’s focus on Joseph and his immediate actions. The camera work is indicative of Joseph’s sense of entrapment and yearning for release. So, at times, it is very difficult to get a sense of geography, but this is all intentional; the claustrophobic cinematography is excellent at placing you in Joseph’s POV.
you become increasingly frustrated with the constant hassle he seems unable to escape
It takes some flexibility from the view not to completely reject the cynical view the film presents, but this is Joseph’s experience of the world so it has to be utterly detestable for his subsequent actions to be plausible. Just like Joseph, you begin to hate his life – you become increasingly frustrated with the constant hassle he seems unable to escape. The film is so good at placing you in Joseph’s POV that, at times, you want the film to end.
In many ways a film like this where the general viewing experience isn’t what you’d regard as entertaining, it is an imperative that it has substance elsewhere. To some extent, Surge will live and die on its ending; it is a very subtle shift for Joseph, but nonetheless it does end on a positive note. This ending is relatively predictable, but the nuance of its execution is, to a level, interesting.
Whether the film’s conclusion is interesting enough to warrant the rest of the film is difficult to say. In many ways, it is a very straightforward film and goes from A to B as you’d expect. Everything about Joseph’s downward spiral is well executed and always believable, but nothing is ever particularly interesting or thought provoking. It is undoubtable that more interesting scenarios could have been chosen to add more layers to the story. That being said, the film’s 105 minute runtime is tight and snappy, so I think there is just enough substance to warrant the experience.
Joker (2019) comparisons are unavoidable given they both deal with socially detached men, lashing out against a society which ostensibly ignores them. However, Surge tackles this issue more totally than Joker. In Surge, Joseph’s chaotic release is entirely psychological, rather than contrived through a pre-existing mental illness, which always made Joker less interesting. Also, except for it being Todd Phillips’ love letter to character studies of the 1970s, I’ve never understood why Joker isn’t set in the present day. Contemporary London allows Surge to be more directly relevant to the issues it tackles and, in turn, more sobering than Joker.
Joker may have a surreal and theatrical quality which makes it more enjoyable, but Surge is far more carefully plotted. There is never a moment when Joseph’s actions feel a step too far for the character. Overall, Joker may have a surreal hypnotic quality that is undoubtedly alluring, but it lacks Surge’s clarity of purpose and direction. I would hesitantly say, Surge is a better film.
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