With so many movies coming out that are carbon copies of films that took that chance to be distinct with its own original voice, there was some trepidation after seeing the trailer for Joe Lynch’s MAYHEM. The “infected” Battle Royale style is tough to do because the progenitors of the sub-genre were such strong films. With Mayhem, Lynch and writer Matias Caruso subvert the audience’s expectations with a voraciously twisted movie that revels in its deviancy while staying emotionally grounded to its main character.
Synopsis: “A virus infects a corporate law office on the day attorney Derek Saunders (Yeun) is framed by a co-worker and wrongfully fired. The infection is capable of making people act out their wildest impulses. Trapped in the quarantined building, our hero is forced to savagely fight tooth and nail for not only his job but his life.”
For a film that traffics in the indecent and immoral, Mayhem surprisingly comes at you with quite the romantic notion of ethical honesty. Amongst the sex, violence and more violence – which is just so much damn fun to watch – is Steven Yeun as Derek. Within the first few minutes we see him go from an enthusiastic young worker to a jaded, seemingly amoral jag-off (or “suit” as Samara Weaving’s Melanie Cross dubs them) who worries more about his favorite coffee cup than the shady biz he takes part in on behalf of his employer.
Derek suppresses his natural inclination towards empathy, integrity and compassion behind the classic, “it’s not me, it’s company policy” attitude (though it occasionally slips out) – an extremely relatable disposition for anyone who works as a cog in the soul-crushing wheel of big business. When he becomes infected with a virus that lowers inhibitions and over-stimulates the id he’s finally able to cast off that veneer and let that repressed hatred of all the back-stabbing, unscrupulous, corruptive behavior out in the most violent way. In the strangest of ironic twists, it is only when the societal inhibitions that tell him “don’t stick your neck out, conform, only look out for yourself” are gone does he truly exhibit the kind of redemptive humanity we all hope is truly at our core (even if he does it with extreme prejudice).
Yeun’s portrayal of Derek is the kind of multi-faceted, nuanced depiction sorely missing from genre films these days. It is very rare to see a protagonist not only become infected by a violence-inducing virus and maintain his humanity, but actually become more virtuous as a result. Yeun plays the “rage infected” Derek more as someone who just had a spiritual awakening and is so pure in his drive and intentions, his manic behavior seems more like euphoria than rage. (On a more personal note – it is very cool to see Lynch not only cast Yeun, but allowed him to play a Korean-American character that isn’t some stereotype or needless exoticized him- see this recent Leonard Chang article as an example of how frustratingly wrong this can go). He is ultimately the heart of the film, he is the everyman who wants to be just in an unjust world and this infection has freed him from that dilemma (like a more likable D-Fens from Falling Down).
If Derek is the heart of the film, then Samara Weaving’s Melanie is the motherfucking unmitigated, uncompromising subconscious. Weaving is two-for-two after this one and Netflix’s The Babysitter, in which she stole the show. Her portrayal of Melanie is the perfect complement to Yeun’s Derek. Like the devil, whispering (or in this case yelling “You open doors like my grandmother fucks!) in his ear, she takes no prisoners and gives no fucks about anyone or anything standing in her way. In many ways, Derek sees her unwavering and undeterred spirit as an inspiration to fully embrace what the virus is revealing about himself rather than trying to fight against it.
Weaving has that rare, beguiling charisma that draws you to her even as she’s caving someone’s skull in with a claw hammer. She’s 100% present and alive in each and every moment whether it be discussing Dave Matthew’s Band or putting the boots to some suit. Out of all the characters it seems like the virus affected her the least – only slightly amplifying the already cutting edge quality, pushing her into the unfettered perfection of chaos she becomes. That’s not to say she’s a one-woman wilding the whole way. Melanie’s own story becomes intertwined with Derek’s in a way that not only humanizes her but is integral Derek become fully realized (and not in that really hokey “damsel in distress” way either).
No morality tale/battle royale is complete without the villains. Caroline Chikezie and Steven Brand revel in their roles as duplicitous, malevolent baddies. There’s no shades of gray with these two – just flat-out, fuck-you-I’m-fucking-evil villainy of the most corporate kind. Lynch structures the film much like a video game – as Derek and Melanie go up the tower, they run across under-bosses, mid-bosses and finally the final boss. With each boss taken down, they’re own power/determination increases which allows them to be ready to take on their respective antagonists fully equipped (both physically and emotionally). Chikezie as “the Siren” is an especially fulfilling villain to see get her eventually comeuppance as her rendition of the ladder-climbing, cold, calculating exec should be relatable to anyone in the business world.
Lynch and Caruso crafted a fully realized world in a very short period of time. Subtler things like only giving the villains nicknames like “The Bull” or “The Reaper” to differentiate them from the average employees helps to create that idiosyncratic feel to the movie. Even the way they talk has a particular cadence and delivery that makes the whole film feel almost like a dark fairy tale or some how just slightly off from reality. By doing so it makes the sex and violence feel more like a fever dream and allows the audience to more fully be pulled into Lynch’s aberrant world.
Joe Lynch has most definitely created something very singularly wicked and sadistic fable that doesn’t get lost in its own depravity. If you enjoy films like Neveldine and Taylor’s Crank or the grindhouse sensibilities of early Guy Ritchie films then you might be teed up enough for Mayhem.
If you’re lucky enough to be in the right market, Mayhem is playing at select theaters. If not, you can rent/buy it now on iTunes, Amazon and Vudu. And also check out Lynch’s previous film Everly – a super fun flick as well.
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