If you’ve ever worked an office job wherein every single one of your bosses has been promoted above his/her aptitude, you know what futility feels like. You slave away at your cubicle to reach beyond your pay grade only to have someone that knows nothing about what you do — or worse, throws you under the bus for something you’ve never even heard about — derail everything with the stroke of a pen or click of a button. What’s your recourse? Unless they stupidly cc’d you on the smoking gun email that sealed your fate, there is none. You will simply fade away as your career and life is dismantled for no other reason than your adversary possessing higher clearance. You fantasize about your revenge, ultimately resigning yourself to retail.
Well, screenwriter Matias Caruso feels your anguish, so much so he’s written a rage-fueled adventure depicting the carnage of that blood-soaked empowerment fantasy. With Joe Lynch in the director’s chair, the two bring Mayhem to life thanks to a gimmick introduced as the ID-7 virus. This nasty little concoction infiltrates your body and enhances your id until all those latent desires bottled up inside let loose via violence, sex, profanity, and murder. Because you’re still conscious of what you’re doing, the consequences of your actions should prove severe. But with a single case hinged upon a loophole that says your body is the virus’ weapon, a precedent is set to render anything done while under the influence legally untouchable. Every impulse your black heart desires is fair game.
The man who thought up this nifty “get out of jail free” rhetoric wasn’t a high-powered attorney or Fortune 500 businessman looking for a failsafe. No, it was Derek Cho (Steven Yeun), a once bright-eyed go-getter who has let the jaded opportunism of the consultant firm he works for consume him. Greed took over from idealism, the knowledge that this loophole was setting a guilty man free offset by the guarantee of a promotion if it worked. Derek isn’t proud of what he did. He feels remorse and thus does his best to achieve tiny moral victories whenever possible (that don’t also risk his potential ascent up the corporate ladder). But that success also makes him a threat to those above him. It’s a dog-eat-dog world, my friends.
So when a cutthroat employee with superiority known as “The Siren” (Caroline Chikezie) finds herself facing a massive error, Derek proves the perfect underling to saddle the blame while also securing her place within the food chain. He figures out what’s happening and believes he’s ready for the fight he must wage with company CEO John Towers (Steven Brand) to clear his name and get “The Siren” fired instead. You can guess what happens next. Where the twist arrives, however, is in the presence of ID-7 this fateful day. Not only does a government quarantine mean Derek can’t be thrown out of the building, the virus provides him the smokescreen to blackmail, maim, and/or kill anyone blocking his path to those with the power to reinstate his job.
That’s all he wants: his job. Derek is on a principled — albeit maniacal — quest to acquire an outcome he deserves because it is just. And along with this newfound dedication to honesty, he’s opening himself up to the reality that he too fell prey to material desires. That pursuit allowed him to turn a blind eye to the plight of Melanie Cross (Samara Weaving), her mortgage in default by a bank client of Derek’s work. She too is trapped within the building, her mind caught up on retribution augmented by the virus’ extreme desire to acquire it. Because Towers, partner Irene Smythe (Kerry Fox), and the board could change both of their fates, Derek and Melanie team-up to procure elevator keycards, cultivate influence, and wreak havoc.
Much like The Raid co-opted a videogame-esque environment to clear levels along the heroes’ journey upward to the top, Mayhem also embraces this caricatured escalation of chaos. The first fifteen-to-twenty minutes set-up the players and their allegiances/motivations as the ID-7 virus spreads throughout the building. Derek’s voiceover narration explained the symptoms from the get-go so we know what’s happening once everyone’s eyes start to go blood red. This progression culminates into the aforementioned quarantine, the disgruntled employees looking to leave for lunch coming to blows first. A punch to the face ultimately awakens Derek to the situation so that his blood can start pumping and his mind can string together a plan. From there it’s “The Reaper” (Dallas Roberts), “The Siren,” and finally “The Boss.”
Caruso has written a very entertaining script for these characters to inhabit. He wields absurdity as a weapon for brutality and humor due to the scenario’s inherent air of surreal delusion wherein nightmare is craved. Melanie wields a nail-gun and rotary saw, Derek wears a tool belt with an array of screwdrivers, and no one is afraid to simply haul off and wail on whomever is in his/her way. Just because the main group lines-up against each other to injure, coerce, and kill, however, don’t forget to also look past them onto the nameless periphery players. This virus has a hold of everyone so that the extras are engaged in violence for violence sake too. But this isn’t 28 Days Later. The affected aren’t zombies. They’re devoid of inhibitions.
So don’t be surprised when Lynch welcomes intensely graphic visuals to depict humanity as the animals we are. Societal imperatives like “normalcy” and “decency” are thrown out the window so that we can live vicariously through the unhinged warriors of justice onscreen. This is David versus Goliath, the former armed with desperation while the latter has only the empty air of hubris. And just as some fight to get what’s theirs, others will beg and manipulate in order to both stay alive and in power. The villains of this tale didn’t get to their position by luck — they know what their employees want and use it as a tool for loyalty rather than a reward for a job well done. Can Derek stifle the urge to sell out?
Everyone involved grabs his/her role by the horns and rides the adrenaline rush to victory or death. Whether Roberts’ indifference manifesting as survival, Chikezie’s ruthless sneering transforming into a manic need for leverage, or Brand’s coked-out smarm becoming a worse coked-out smarm, the filmmakers and actors expertly show how little is changed personality-wise despite their drastic alterations in execution. But while they’re fun to laugh at and see tortured, it’s Yeun and Weaving we rally behind. They get snarkier and more confident as the quarantine counts their window of impunity down to zero, their chemistry as delightfully adversarial as it is authentically trusting. Their ride to infamy and closure is nothing short of exhilarating, the lengths they’ll go forever moving the line of decorum until it’s altogether erased.
Mayhem opens in limited release on Friday, November 10.