Venice: Beau Knapp feeds his body to a swarm of mosquitoes in Filip Jan Rymsza’s silly-scary take on our financial ecosystem.
An itchy psychic collapse that extrapolates a single bug bite into a Cronenbergian parable about our financial ecosystem, Filip Jan Rymsza’s scary-silly “Mosquito State” begs for some context before we can dive into its crepuscular plot.
It’s August 3, 2007. We’re standing on the precipice of the most dire financial crisis since the Great Depression, but no one seems to know it yet. Good things are happening. A young senator named Barack Obama is sparking a new breed of American hope. “No Country for Old Men” and “There Will Be Blood” are about to open within a few weeks of each other. The iPhone has just been invented. People feel immortal. Rich people, most of all.
Wall Street is convinced that it can predict the future, data is the most valuable currency on Earth, and quantitative analysts are valued as modern seers. Quants like Richard Boca (Beau Knapp), whose homemade algorithm has allowed his firm to amass a profane amount of money without any regard to where it came from, or who else might need it. Hunched inside his own body and always staring at the floor, Richard has a hard time communicating with his status-obsessed co-workers; seeing him mingle with the other members of his firm at a hellish nightclub is like watching Dr. Frankenstein’s lab assistant hang out with the cast of “Billions.”
When a beautiful woman named Lena (Charlotte Vega, striking just the right harmony with the film’s stagnant dream vibe) goes home with Richard to his massive, hotel-like penthouse — a brutalist symphony of cold granite and floor-to-ceiling glass overlooking Central Park — your first inclination is that her presence has been paid for. These two people understand each other perfectly well (Richard is electrified by Lena’s admission that “our model of progress is unsustainable”), but he feels an even greater kinship with the female mosquito hiding inside the collar of his shirt.
One bloodsucker to another, Richard can’t be mad at the insect when it leaves a baseball-sized bite on his cheek. More of a tumor, really. He even leaves a glass of water on the table so the little lady can lay her eggs. And when his colleagues don’t trust an urgent message within the algorithm’s latest data — a message that warns them to stop trading immediately or risk destabilizing the entire market — Richard decides the only way to make himself useful is to hole up inside his apartment and feed an entire swarm of mosquitoes with his body. For the rest of the movie.
Unfolding like the unholy chimera that resulted from a mad scientist trying to fuse “The Fly” together with “The Big Short,” Filip Jan Rymsza’s “Mosquito State” is such a wantonly disgusting lump of body horror that it can be hard not to take the film more seriously than it takes itself. It never comes across as weird for the sake of being weird, even if you can feel Rymsza smiling at your discomfort through the screen. The Polish-born director aims his latest feature (his first since 2007’s less repulsive but similarly unmoored “Dustclouds”) at a liminal space between sense and nonsense, order and chaos.
And that’s exactly where it lands and spawns its elliptical nightmare of a plot. Too stiff and narcotized to feel like a midnight movie, and also too drunk on its own irony-tinged bloodlust to swell into a sincere portrait of mental illness, “Mosquito State” is more of a cracked time capsule than anything else; a look back at a world that had yet to realize it was eating itself alive. That retroactive sense of powerlessness is irritating, but the irritation holds your focus.
It’s almost impossible to fathom why someone would spend years of their life making a film this nauseous and febrile, but perhaps even harder to overlook how lucidly Rymsza sees it through — how delicately he creates a habitat where his vision can breed. The movie is arch and funny from the moment it starts with a cartoonish CGI mosquito flying through Manhattan (think the opening credits of “Men in Black”) and buzzing around Richard’s colleagues as they share canned period dialogue like “Hey, is that the iPhone!?” Illustrated title cards that correspond to the mosquito’s mating process (e.g. “THE BLOOD MEAL”) break the film into chapters while also bridging the gap between hilarity and horror; frequent, prolonged, ultra-extreme close-ups of the mosquito laying its eggs fall squarely into the latter category. Morale improves once you realize Rymsza isn’t telling a story so much as creating an ecosystem.
That ecosystem hinges on Knapp’s implosive lead performance, the gravity of which holds the rest of the film in place with amber-like resolve. Bubbling with a demented commitment worthy of comparison to Michael Shannon’s work in the 2006 film adaptation of “Bug,” Knapp embodies Richard with the blinkered clarity of a religious zealot just starting to see the light. It’s a characterization that hinges on the full devotion to a half-understanding, as Richard doesn’t seem to know where this is heading, only that he’s been feeding the wrong insects ever since he got to Wall Street. That epiphany hatches into what might be seen as the delusions of a paranoid schizophrenic, but the movie insists Richard isn’t half as sick as the world around him. Even when his entire body is covered in boils. Even when he starts carrying around a baby monitor so he can lovingly check in on his brood of mosquitos as they buzz around his apartment (which gradually mutates from Nicolas Winding Refn-like cool to Seijun Suzuki-esque humidity, its windows sealing the film into a bloody sac of primary colors). At least Richard is looking beyond himself in a way the other finance bros never could. This is the future liberals want.
Some movies try to entertain you; this one holds your attention like a bite that you can’t stop yourself from scratching even though you know it’s only going to make things worse. It’s hostile and off-putting to the extreme, but also too aggravating to ignore or stop watching. And while the movie ends in just about the only way it can, “Mosquito State” spreads like a rash until it gets there: angry and volatile and hard to know where it might go next, even if we all know what the future holds. We all know that the blood-sucking is just getting started. But Rymsza’s film never stops itching for a better tomorrow.
“Mosquito State” premiered out of competition at the Venice International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.