The plea, suggestion and threat is all in a single line and one delivered on screen long after the viewer has thought it or even muttered it aloud.
“Get some help, mate.”
“Surge” is one man’s experiment in going full Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver,” a lean, reached-his-breaking-point thriller of the “Falling Down” order. It’s a tour de force for its star, Ben Whishaw, and a bracing, minimalist feature film debut for Aneil Karia, who has made some noise with short films and British TV before now.
The buzzcut and hint of an attempted mustache set Joseph instantly apart from another other Whishaw (“Q” in the recent Bond films) performance. He is a working class loner with no hint of an interior life, a misanthropist with a job that forces him to deal with people, up close and personal, every working day.
Joseph does the “step over here, please sir” searches at Stansted Airport. He can be officious and professional as we see with a wide array of passengers — the careless, the frightened, the sketchy and the downright crazy.
Maybe it’s the crazy one who sets him off. But shortly after Joseph a joyless birthday celebration with his hair-trigger-temper dad (Ian Gelder) and another scolding from his martyred mum (Ellie Haddington), Joseph starts to simmer.
Karia tracks Joseph with a nerve-fraying hand-held camera, following him through his routines — the annoyances at work, the obnoxious neighbor who figures blocking the sidewalk into the block of flats they both live in, revving the engine of his motorcycle, is his Make Enga-lund Great Again right.
And the viewer can only wait for the bomb to go off inside this wrapped-too-tight protagonist’s skull.
Our first “Here it comes” clue is the pace of Joseph’s stride through the city, the manic look that crosses his eyes. He acts out in a quick series of “What’s wrong with that guy?” flourishes at work, and gets sent home. He rushes into the apartment of an on-again/off-again flame (Jasmine Jobson). He’s there to “fix your TV,” and he’s agitated. And when he can’t make a quick fix, he dashes to the shops.
But his ATM card won’t work there. Down to the bank, the card gets eaten. He doesn’t have a driver’s license and gets zero help from the teller, marches out, and after a muttering stomp down the street, turns back around, goes back inside, writes a note and robs the place.
A bank robber, on-foot, who just lost the card that can ID him in that very bank, pulls off an impulse heist in the middle of the CCTV capital of the Free World.
“Surge” is a penny plain concept executed with skill and acted with real verve.
The Kafkaesque/Catch-22 trigger moment may be relatable, and the loner’s life of quiet, potentially violent desperation is downright common as a cinematic trope. But the film’s leanness ratchets up the suspense and tension with every hurried step Joseph takes.
There’s no interior monologue, no De Niro standing in front of the mirror play-acting revenge fantasies. There’s just Whishaw, sometimes wearing a deranged Joker smile, increasingly worked-up as he stalks down a tumbling line of dominoes chased by an increasingly impatient camera. The natural sound — street noise — heighten the sense of a violent reckoning to come.
Rating: unrated, violence, sex, nudity
Cast: Ben Whisaw, Jasmime Jobson, Ian Gelder and Ellie Haddington
Credits: Directed by Aniel Karia, scripted by Rupert Jones, Rita Kalnejais and Aneil Karia A FilmRise release.
Running time: 1:39