MAYHEM (4 out of 5 stars)

It’s an understatement to say the world feels collectively high strung lately. We’re constantly jacked in to the bad news of the world ticking away in our pockets. Minute-by-minute updates remind us that the world seems to be spiraling out of control. In director Joe Lynch’s MAYHEM, the human race is given an involuntary way to blow off steam. A disease, colloquially called the “red eye virus,” has broken out. It’s not deadly, but it does remove the inhibitions of the infected host. The infected turn into unchecked, emotional disasters waiting to happen.

The latest outbreak occurs at a massive corporate law firm where Derek Cho (Steven Yeun) spends tedious days as a cog in a corporate machine. Derek fears that he has sold out to the soulless litigious machine. The same machine grinds down little people like Melanie Cross (Samara Weaving). When the virus is unleashed, Derek and Melanie establish an uneasy alliance to fight their way to the top. In the process, Melanie can regain her foreclosed home and Derek can get back his job.

Lynch does a great job of establishing the cutthroat corporate climate. When the bubbling violence reaches its boiling point it comes as no surprise. It almost feels like these people would have killed each other without the push of a virus. The actors manage to find levels of “rage” that keep the film from devolving into people screaming. Their heightened performances are the logical end point from their normal biting personalities.

Making a Star

MAYHEM

If MAYHEM proves anything it’s that Steven Yeun is a goddamn movie star. His charisma sells a premise that could have been toxic in our modern climate of mass shootings and terrorism. Instead, he makes it a cathartic story of one man against the soul-crushing modern establishment.

Lynch participated in a post screening Q and A at the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival. He said that while casting Derek he asked himself who was this generation’s Richard Dreyfuss. He need an Everyman who you can follow and root for through any situation. Social media reactions to Glenn’s fake-out death in season 6 of THE WALKING DEAD convinced him it had to be Yeun.

The decision ended up being the right one. In the hands of a less capable (and less likable) actor, Derek could be difficult to cheer on. Yeun’s inherent underdog scrappiness makes him the ideal audience surrogate. The film also reveals the range Yeun has as an actor. The sooner he starts appearing in major films, the better. Not to be out done, Weaving turns in a star-making performance with electric energy and a gift for comedic delivery. The script asks her to switch back and forth between vulnerability and manic anger and she delivers on every emotional beat.

Lynch’s action in MAYHEM isn’t as memorable as in his film EVERLY. But every punch or bloody stab kicks you in the ass with its gore effects or bone crunching sound design. The script insists upon a voiceover that feels redundant considering Lynch’s strong visual sense. However, Lynch makes good use of the limited budget with memorable characters and a clear sense of geography within the office building.

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Surprising Philosophy

It’s odd to use the phrase “world-building” on a film that mostly takes place in one location, but it fits. Lynch gives each side character a sense of history within the company. The framing, performance, and costuming each help meticulously realize the characters. It’s a great illustration of Lynch’s ability to avoid hindrance due to budget.

What’s most interesting about MAYHEM is its theme of personal responsibility. For a film about a virus that unleashes inhibitions, MAYHEM has a lot to say about the individual’s place in society. “The raindrop never thinks it’s responsible for the flood,” Melanie tells Derek as he tries to pass off responsibility. It takes a complete removal of responsibility for Derek to realize just how necessary it is. (Kudos to screenwriter Matias Caruso for that clever plot point.)

On paper, MAYHEM seems like it would be a nihilistic slog. Instead, it ends up being rather hopeful about humanity — as long as we can learn to stand up when we know not to stand for the unjust status quo. MAYHEM suggests that if we took all that pent-up rage and put it towards good, maybe we could regain control. Or at the very least, feel a little less pissed off.

For more films from the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival click here!

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