BHFF 2017: Simplistic Messaging is Obscured by The Madness of ‘Mayhem’

by Michael Haigis
Published: Last Updated on

Mayhem, the new film from director Joe Lynch (Wrong Turn 2: Dead End, Everly) is a splatter farce masquerading as social commentary, starring Steven Yeun (Walking Dead fans rejoice) as Derek Cho. Derek is a corporate drone obsessed with climbing the company ladder, until his office building is infected with a virus that mitigates human inhibition and (as a fully unhinged prologue reveals) causes people to either kill one another or screw one another — which appear to be Lynch’s only two ideas of what unrestrained humans would end up doing.

Surely enough, as Derek fights his way to the top floor of his office building, looking to exact revenge after being unfairly fired early on, killing and screwing are the two pillars of the titular mayhem. Cho’s company is a legal consulting firm, advising companies that get people sick, companies that evict people, and private citizens who commit heinous acts — whoever can pay, really. Lynch’s representation of corporate toxicity is comically exaggerated, which is the only way Mayhem can work. For us to empathize with Derek, his bosses have to be unconscionable monsters, and they are. His corporate overlords are a lineup of Gordon Gecko types, only with fewer scruples — and that’s before the virus hits.

In building a corporation evil enough for us to truly disdain, Lynch veers so far into hyperbole that he blunts the film’s intended screed against corporate America. Mayhem is marred by a kind of simplistic adolescence, completely devoid of nuance, and totally obsessed with how fun and hilarious it would be to murder one’s boss with a nail gun.

Which is not to say the film isn’t entertaining. If you took the video game shoot-em-up structure of The Raid, dashed in the scene from Wanted when James McAvoy’s character quits his job, and added a heavy dollop of the scene from Kingsman when Colin Firth kills an entire church, then you’d be left with Mayhem. The film moves fast, creatively compiles a substantial body count, and provides enough visceral thrill to be engaging. Lynch has an eye for action, blocking sequences comprehensibly even when they unfold within an entire office floor erupting in, well, mayhem.

However, nearly all of the director’s style is reserved for murder and overwrought, angsty monologues. The film has the look of either a corporate sexual harassment training video or a low budget comedy sketch, which gives the office a sense of mundane veracity, but the lack of any texture or thoughtful lighting in Mayhem also creates a DIY sensibility, and might accurately reflect the intentions of a filmmaker more concerned with creative death scenes than communicative aesthetics. The entire endeavor is basked in dull fluorescence until action moves to the penthouse, which is a darker, more opulent and menacing environment (naturally).

Mayhem shoots for catharsis and a gory reclamation of power for the little guy, but the intentionally hilarious violence and unintentionally jejune humor (“you open doors like my grandmother fucks!” one character says) create a kind of distance that prevents understanding the film as anything other than expensive playtime for Lynch. Derek’s alliance with Melanie (Samara Lynch, doing an astonishingly accurate Margot Robbie) is the film’s most compelling dynamic — she is only in the building to protest her family’s eviction, and in the film’s opening he denies her pleas.

As they shoot, stab, and fight their way to the building’s top, they (predictably) have sex, which is again in line with Lynch’s idea of uninhibited human behavior: we’ll fight and fuck, and the only way of discerning between us is the order we choose. Still, their testy alliance is the sole source of real humor and humanity to balance out the film’s cold appearance and unceasing violence. By the end of Mayhem, Melanie teaches Derek the value of empathy, but that’s the only lesson here. The film dabbles in simplistic anti-corporate messaging, but at the end, Lynch can’t avoid his fixation with cheap thrills.

Check out The Brooklyn Horror Film Festival, taking place in Brooklyn, NY October 12-15, 2017

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