The sound design in Surge submerges us in a fractured mind, but that doesn’t save the film from feeling like Ben Whishaw’s discarded Joker audition tape. Surge is screening in Sundance’s World Dramatic Competition.
From the opening scene of Aneil Karia’s Surge, it’s clear something is wrong with Joseph (Ben Whishaw), not because of what we can see, but because of what we can hear. Joseph works as a security guard at the airport — a stressful environment in any case — but the sounds of hurried travellers, metal detectors going off, and messages over the intercom are gratingly loud in the sound mix. Outside, every car horn feels invasive and the screech of tyres are horrifically loud. We’re hearing the world through Joseph’s ears, and it’s almost unbearable.
The brilliant sound design in Surge goes a long way (but not quite far enough) to ground the film’s increasingly absurd premise: Joseph’s mental breakdown feels more understandable because we know how horrible it is to be inside his head. This anxiety-inducing film seems strongly inspired by the work of the Safdie brothers, in the way we watch a single character spiral further and further into insanity and criminality. While Surge does a good job of immersing us in a fractured headspace, as Joseph’s actions grow sillier and sillier, and Whishaw’s acting becomes more and more mannered, it feels like we’re just pointing and laughing at this mentally ill man rather than participating in something more constructive.
“What do you get if you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash?” is the question explored by both Surge and Todd Phillips’ Joker. Yet even Joker tries to answer that question (in a horribly misguided way, sure), whereas Karia’s answer is just… a mentally ill loner who acts even weirder than before. As for Whishaw, he’s an accomplished actor who does his best with thin material. But it’s a shame that Surge just comes across as his discarded audition tape to play Joaquin Phoenix’s now Oscar nominated role.