Surge starts with that same nervous, uneasy energy of a Safdie brothers’ film, or Vincent Gallo’s Buffalo 66. Something feels off. A vibe that you can never quite put your finger on. Even once the film encroaches itself on its beleaguered protagonist, there is an edge that never really dissipates, until the last shot. Even then, despite the surprising sereneness that occurs within that moment, the hectic sense of dread still feels only seconds away. Surge operates with a heightened sense of awareness that things are about to get messy.
We meet Joseph already on a knife’s edge, working an isolating job as an airport security worker. It is clear he pines for a fellow employee but seems wary of making a move. The passengers he must scan and search for his job are difficult for a variety of reasons. He clamps down on glasses and forks to subdue himself from the tension building within him. His parents pick him up from work, and it is difficult to understand why they seem so on edge around him. His mum walks on eggshells. His dad is straight-up hostile. Something is brewing stronger than a builder’s cup of Tetley.
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Suddenly Joseph snaps, and so begins what has been described as a “bold and reckless journey of Self-liberation”. An astonishing embracement of chaos. What occurs is a fervent display of irresponsible behaviour, with each moment feeling like another shot of adrenaline has just been pumped into the frame. It is at this point that Surge’s inescapable tension ramps up, as Joseph devolves from a tightly wound security drone to impulsive ASBO enthusiast and thief. Making things like pulling a favour for the girl he has a crush on, turn into the sort of high-risk manoeuvre that is best looked at through fingers.
This is a showcase for an actor who may mostly be seen through one lens. A chance for the voice of Paddington (2014) to shed the niceties and channel some manic, thoughtless energy. Ben Whishaw is in almost every frame of Surge, and he does his best to make sure you do not look away. It is a performance in which the character of Joseph is trapped within the throes of delirium. With a mouth cut with glass and darting eyes, the panicky camerawork of the film becomes more frenzied as another transgressive impulse takes hold.
Clint Worthington of The Spool remarked Aneil Karia’s debut as a British riff on Falling Down (1993), and there is enough in the film to suggest this. So much of the impulses seem to come about not just from an undisclosed mental illness, but from a general wariness of modern life. Small interactions, from broken Bluetooth TVs to no ID to withdraw money, hint at a world that is moving on without our protagonist. Joseph seems unable to communicate his frustrations with the world around him, and an altercation early on almost suggests a kinship with displacement. There is enough within Surge to hint that Joseph may soon be not economically viable.
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But what is missing from Surge is pathos or empathy. There’s little real connection to have with Joseph despite Whishaw’s thoroughly entertaining display. There is a certain uneasy joy in watching Joseph’s breakdown to see what happens next. But while Surge does not need to bog a viewer down with over-complicated reasons as to why Joseph cracks the way he does, it never really nails down the hints it seems to be giving, making the rather assured piece more of a simple actor showcase. That cannot be knocked too hard, however. It is fun while it lasts.
Surge will be released in UK Cinemas and on Digital Platforms on 28th May. Please check your cinema’s website for details of Covid-19 safety measures, and read up on government and local government guidelines, and the latest scientific advice about safety and risks.