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Ben Wishawen Wishaw

“SURGE” My rating: B- (In theaters; on demand on Oct. 25)

105 minutes | No MPAA rating

Modern life can drive a person crazy.  This is not news.  Dozens of films have been based on that very idea.

Few, however carry the visceral oomph of “Surge,” which finds an airport security guard (Ben Wishaw) going off the deep end to spend 24 hours wandering the streets of London in an ever-accelerating psychic meltdown.

The first 20 or so minutes of Aniel Karia’s film play out almost like a documentary about working airport security.  Our protagonist, Joseph, must put up with travelers who radiate everything from contempt to tearful panic; he’s supposed to maintain his own dispassionate calm while patting down passengers who are about one martini away from an eye-rolling implosion.

I’ve always thought of airport security as a physically dangerous job (you know, terrorists and all that) but clearly it’s the mental/emotional toll that leaves a guy a hollow shell.

Joseph is sleep deprived; he has a neighbor who revs his motorcycle all  night long.  

He’s a chronic moper and after meeting his parents we can see why:  Mom (Ellie Haddington, possessor of the glummest face in film history) oozes maternal disapproval and Dad (Ian Gelder) seethes in a cocoon of pre-dementia fury.

At a certain point in the episodic screenplay (credited to Karia, Rupert Jones and Rita Kalnejais) Joseph begins a journey through the streets. His credit card eaten by an ATM, he tries his hand at robbery.

He visits a coworker to help her get her new TV up and running; this results in a sexual coupling that sends him off on a manic high.

That doesn’t last.  Joseph checks into a hotel and proceeds to do a rock star number on the room, then crashes a wedding reception in the ballroom.

By day’s end he’s beaten,  bloody and burned out.  

Now none of this can be viewed as fun.  “Surge” is a downer from start to finish.

But it is also hugely effective.  Much of it appears to have been shot on the fly with handheld cameras.  Wishaw is often seen moving through crowds of people who don’t know they’re being filmed. Nothing seems rehearsed.

And then there’s the soundtrack.  “Surge” features what may be the most effective sonic depiction of mental collapse ever created for the cinema. Paul Davis’ sound design creates an unrelenting  whirlwind of noise — rumbling engines, horns, music pouring out of shops, snatches of conversation — that perfectly matches the unraveling of Jospeh’s sanity.

At one point Wishaw has been so closely miked that his breathing takes on the devastating power of hurricane-force winds.

This is combined with Tujiko Noriko’s musical score of bass rumblings and dissonant treble notes — it’s reminiscent of the Gyorgi Ligeti “music of the spheres” employed in Kubrick’s “2001.”

Together these elements practically scream for an Oscar nomination for sound design.  (While watching the film I listened on stereo headphones and the effect was simply devastating.)

There were moments early on when I feared that “Surge” was slipping into a satiric parody of the whole “modern life is hell” motif. Nope. Everyone involved seems to be taking it very seriously.

| Robert W. Butler

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