“Surge” Review

From Howard Beale in Network decrying everything that’s wrong with America after breaking down on air, to Michael Douglas’ William Foster finding himself railing against his place in the food chain in Falling Down, there’s been a long history of cinema depicting seemingly normal men cracking at the seams, unable to stay sane when faced with the mediocrity and hypocrisy of polite society. But as far as this critic can tell, not a single one of these narratives has ever dealt with a normal man whose destructive streak all began with a failed attempt to buy a HDMI cable. 

Surge, the feature directorial debut of Aneil Karia, is an odd, inconsistent, but ultimately worthy addition to this cinematic lineage. On paper, the film is pitched somewhere between the societal rage of Joel Schumacher’s aforementioned Falling Down and the anxiety-inducing crime spree of the Safdie Brothers’ Good Time, but in practice its central character study proves uncomfortable for different reasons. Its central character is always depicted at a detached remove, following him everywhere without ever getting inside his head – a symptom of a wider societal malaise. It’s an unconventional approach to a familiar character study that isn’t entirely successful, and it’s easy to imagine this triggering a plethora of walkouts upon its cinema release. But those who stay with it are guaranteed an experience that’s hard to shake, in spite of the numerous missteps.

Photo © Courtesy of Vertigo Releasing

Joseph (Ben Whishaw) works in airport security at Stansted, a numbing job that merely accentuates the stifling dullness of his life; he lives alone, and only seems to socialise outside of work with a family he’s emotionally estranged from. He’s prone to attempting self harm as a means of feeling something, and a chance encounter at the airport with a man who mistakenly recognises him awakens an uncontrollable desire to unshackle himself from the conformity of his job and his life. Soon, he’s acting out at work, and his behaviour in public is irrational and dictated on a whim. It’s not long before things take a turn for the criminal; a bizarre attempt to buy a HDMI cable for a colleague leads to his credit card getting rejected – leading him to rob a bank to pay the £5 fee, and after seeing how easy it was, embarks further down this self-destructive spiral.

Photo © Courtesy of Vertigo Releasing

The film is held together by Whishaw’s feral central performance, portraying a man so numbed by the banality of his existence, it often feels like he’s acting out of a need to experience emotion for the first time. His utilisation of specific behavioural tics never lapses into self parody, feeling less like a depiction of a nervous breakdown unfolding in real time, and more like a man testing the limitations of his own behaviour, suddenly unburdened by the need to blend in. The film’s opening shot, a long take overlooking the interiors of Stansted Airport, remains the only time Whishaw isn’t at the centre of the frame – the more reckless his behaviour, the tighter cinematographer Stuart Bentley’s camera becomes. By the time we get to his HDMI-cable fuelled crime spree, events start unfolding in what appears to be one long take, the propulsive shaky cam creating a sense of claustrophobia. At times, you’d be forgiven for assuming Whishaw’s entire performance was born of improvisation, so attuned to the character’s ability to act upon inexplicable whims; it often feels like Karia’s stylistic choices were born out of witnessing this untethered central turn, rather than an actor tailoring his performance to fit the encompassing unease his director has created.

Photo © Courtesy of Vertigo Releasing

Surge is a feature length adaptation of a short Whishaw and Karia made in 2013, and in the film’s weakest spots, this is all but apparent. His crime spree often hits familiar beats; a Post Office robbery even ends in the same manner as the ill fated heist that opens the Safdie’s Good Time, which this often feels like it’s striving to be the British cousin of. And other sequences prove too repetitive – the character remains intriguing precisely because of his irrationality, but the film around him isn’t as unrestrained as he is, and at times that can become testing. The most memorable moments are divorced from the entire crime spree narrative altogether. A particular highlight is when Joseph tests the limits of his behaviour among strangers, at one point crashing a wedding reception with a surreal brand of confrontation that’s far closer to Denis Lavant’s sewer dwelling Monsieur Merde from Holy Motors than any conventional depiction of a man lashing out at society. 

Ben Whishaw’s performance helps elevate Surge – this would be a much lesser character study with someone else in the lead, and its storytelling flaws would become a clearer hindrance. It transforms an admirable, but flawed, debut into a much more effective one.


Rating: 3 out of 5.

Written by Alistair Ryder

View of the Arts is a British online publication that chiefly deals with films, music, arts and fashion, with an emphasis on the Asian entertainment industry. We are hoping our audience will grow with us as we begin to explore new platforms such as K-pop, and continue to dive into the talented and ever-growing scene of film, arts and fashion, worldwide.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.