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Surge by Aneil Karia 3

Surge director Aneil Karia on his favourite stressful movies

Featuring Darren Aronofsky’s mother!, Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy, and the Safdie brothers’ chaotic thriller, Uncut Gems

In Aneil Karia’s electrifying drama Surge, Joseph lives out a very modern fantasy: he impulsively quits his job and robs a bank. For Joseph, a ticking timebomb played by Ben Whishaw, work consists of scanning and dehumanising passengers at Stanstead Airport. It’s tedious, repetitive, and, above all, anxiety-inducing. Without privacy, Joseph is constantly monitored by supervisors; in response to dissenting strangers, he maintains a positive, albeit placid, exterior. Instead of venting, he gnaws on a glass of water until his gums bleed. At home, where he lives alone, the seemingly friendless introvert passes time by consuming clips of Michael McIntyre’s stand-up – which, we can all agree, represents a rock-bottom low.

And then Joseph snaps.

After berating colleagues and storming out of a shift, Joseph swaggers around Hackney as if he’s recreating The Verve’s “Bitter Sweet Symphony” music video. Then, on the spur of the moment, Joseph strolls into a bank, pretends to have a gun, and grabs the cash with no attempt to hide his face from CCTV. We’re already watching someone destroy their life in real time – and then Joseph robs another bank in exactly the same way.

While it may sound cathartic to behave like a Grand Theft Auto videogame character, Surge emphasises that Joseph is, at any moment, on the verge of arrest, if not an actual death. Whether he’s daring violent drunks to pummel his face in or speeding through traffic on a stolen quadbike sans helmet, Joseph’s behaviour is so erratic that you almost forget that the police are hot on his trail. Thanks to a discordant, haunting soundscape that pans from ear to ear and the jittery energy radiating from Whishaw’s restless, twitching body, there’s rarely a moment to breathe.

“It’s a reaction to what it’s like living in a huge metropolis like London,” says Karia, a director whose credits include Netflix’s Top Boy and the accompanying short for Riz Ahmed’s The Long Goodbye. “Millions live so closely alongside each other in this pretty cold, compassionless, gruelling system. It’s a constant blend of anxiety and numbness. You think about our species’ beginnings, and where we’ve arrived in the modern world, and it doesn’t feel like a gentle or loving environment to exist in. What’s going on deeper down is much less considered.”

During the research process for Surge, which Karia coscripted with Rupert Jones and Babyteeth writer Rita Kalnejais, the British-Asian director discovered that bank robbers tend to be men attempting to prove their masculinity. Often, they don’t even need the money. “It’s contrary to what we’re fed by Hollywood. Most bank robbers are not cool, alpha male, career criminals. They’re often men struggling with their sense of identity. Deeper than that, there’s a real dissatisfaction with who they are in in the context of a society that demands boldness and bravado. A huge percentage haven’t committed a crime before. A number do it on instinct, rather than it being premeditated. They reach a cracking point.”

In short, Surge is more relatable than you realise. Even when doing Zoom interviews, it’s tempting to deactivate my Gmail, unplug the router, and rob the McDonald’s around the corner – the face mask, in that case, would be the perfect disguise. Luckily, I postponed the self-destruction of my career in order to speak to Karia about Surge and his favourite stressful movies.

Surge is released in UK cinemas and on digital platforms May 28