REVIEW: ‘Surge’ (2021) Expresses the Tensions of a Repetitive Society

Rating: 4 out of 5.

‘Surge’ is honest, and just like its title, the movie rushes and pours the emotions of a man that wants to be set free of the mundane world that he lives in into the mental and physical uneasiness of his perspective.”

Aneil Karia’s directorial debut Surge (2021) explores the repetitiveness of a homogenous society while playing on the whimsical journey of self-discovery and letting go. Joseph (Ben Whishaw) leads a mundane life, trapped in a soulless job as airport security where his role is strict with rules and regulations. He goes through the motions of patting down the passengers, keeping quiet and not making any effort to make any friends at his workplace. While celebrating his birthday at his parents’ house, he purposefully bites on a glass of water and cuts his mouth. Joseph returns to his job the next day but starts acting compulsively and twitches, which causes him to take the day off. Following this event, he lets himself go, as he commits a spree of crimes and continues to display erratic behaviour around the streets of London.  

The tension between Joseph and his parents suggests that he might have bitten on glass and hurt himself purposely before, as they began to shout at home rather than make sure he is okay. Joseph has been in trouble before, but his behaviour is not caused by a diagnosed mental illness and it is not mentioned in the film, which makes it slightly unclear why he starts to act this way. Living a boring and repetitive life of following strict orders and regulations causes him to experience this rebirth, and Joseph sets out to seek the truth of his natural freedom. For Joseph, the tipping point is when he cannot control his urge to let himself be free of the constraints of his monotonous job, unleashing the many emotions repressed inside him. The primal instinct and the rush of letting go of the stress, anxieties, and emotions of Joseph’s life is explosive.

A man stands in front of a wal
Image courtesy of BBC Films

Surge is a sensitive and complex movie to understand, but the direction and performances by Karia and Whishaw — who previously worked together on a short film called Beat in 2013 — deserve attention, at the very least. Whishaw performs Joseph’s instability with such charisma and rawness, immersing himself into the role. The audience should take into account that his performance is not only an emotional one but a physical one, too. Whishaw’s Joseph is wordless and only expresses his frustrations and excitement through flinches, grimaces, and stares that successfully sell the character’s complicated nature. One of the most interesting scenes in the movie is when Joseph reaches his colleague Lily’s (Jasmine Jobson) home to fix her TV and buy an HDMI cable. In a single shot, Joseph runs to the hardware store and, unable to pay with his card, robs a bank to buy the cable. The entire scene is captured with intense and shaky camera movements, just as Joseph feels exhilarated and liberated by robbing a bank— something he has never done before. His newfound nature is expressed through Karia’s direction and Stuart Bentley’s amazing camerawork. 

There is one scene in particular that captures a softer and calmer side of Joseph’s freedom, as he sits in silence wondering what to do next. In contrast to the intense mood of the previous sequence, another scene in Surge that catches the eye is when Joseph books a hotel room with the money he has stolen and destroys everything inside it. He rips out the mattress and sits inside it, portraying a gentler version of him. Even if the mood slightly changes, Joseph’s intensity and delirium are still there, only much calmer. Perhaps, this is an indication that there is a new beginning for Joseph. But alas, there is more for the audience to behold, as scenes of Joseph stealing a quad bike and crashing into a car lead to some fatal injuries. 

A man stands on the street wearing casual clothes. He is smiling, with his head turned to the right, and his left arm is outstretched. Buildings and people are out of focus behind him.
Image courtesy of BBC Films

Surge is a cinematic art piece that may divide some viewers because of the ever-changing moods, intensity, and visual material that balances it all. It is a story that tries to reach for the universality of loneliness, freedom, and tension through Joseph’s complicated nature. Karia never lets the audience drown in the depths of Joseph’s emotional and physical journey. He allows the audience to process and simmer these elements in long, shaky takes, showing the pedestrians’ surprised and disgruntled expressions. Surge is honest, and just like its title, the movie rushes and pours the emotions of a man that wants to be set free of the mundane world that he lives in into the mental and physical uneasiness of his perspective. 

Dir: Aneil Karia

Prod: Vertigo Films

Cast: Ben Whishaw, Jasmine Jobson, Ellie Haddington, Chris Coghill

Release Date: 2021

Available on: Video on demand