Mr Robot (Sam Esmail, USA Network, 2015-1019)
A taut, erudite character study, Mr Robot is a brilliantly realised dissection of corporate Americana
Since the release of Martin Scorsese’s timeless Taxi Driver (1976), cinema has grown to develop something of a proclivity for what Paul Schrader dubbed ‘god’s lonely man.’ Ever since, we’ve encountered numerous incarnations of the Travis Bickle prototype – not a man per se, but a shell: a vessel, a person barely existing in a world where he neither fits, nor belongs. His aimlessness is pathological. Companionship is fleeting, superficial, absent. Melancholy doesn’t just exist in his world. It swallows him whole.
There’s something simultaneously charming and repellent about his demeanour… something tragic, something relatable. He’s paired an intelligent streak with a troubled past, and it’s this toxic combination haunts him most. He’s self-aware enough to know that there’s something wrong, something amiss. There’s an ache that never subsides, but he refuses to confront it. He seems indelibly tethered to some far-off vision of what he could be. This is his tragedy: every now and then, glimpses of hope enlighten in his story, but in the end, a familiar smog rolls in, obscuring any and all chances at real happiness. Try though he may, it’s a vicious, inescapable cycle. It defines everything about him.
Owing its fundamental structure to these ideas, Mr Robot takes a familiar formula and situates it in a firmly contemporary context. A frightening fusion of information and technology defines the paradox of an ‘interconnected’ society. A mobile-dependent culture has us doped and duped with phony social approval. We’re all secretly exhausted with these faultless façades, pristine vistas… feigning intimacy with virtual people we don’t even know. And somewhere near Coney Island, New York, the exploits of a gaunt, standoffish coder named Elliot Alderson (brilliantly payed by a jittery Rami Malek) exist wholly within this world. The consequences are laid bare: the loneliness is overwhelming; the inability to connect with real life devastates and divides. Eventually, an online existence doesn’t just become preferable, it becomes necessary.
For Elliot, he’s good at it. By day, he’s an invisible office serf. At night, he hacks the bad guys, exposing their corruption and avarice. For all intents and purposes, he’s a weedier, less violent Dexter, utilising his expertise in service of some moralistic, vigilante justice. And it isn’t tokenistic either. He believes in these principles. He’s sincere, and that makes him relatable. But now something’s different. Suspicious men in black suits are tailing his subway journeys. They park outside his home, tail him down the street. They seem strangely purposeful in their pursuits, doggedly trailing his every move. Is he just paranoid? Or do they know what he’s done?
The mistrust is crushing. The tremors set in, the world darkens. Then one day, Elliot stumbles across an eccentric, inscrutable figure amidst a bustling train carriage. A proposition arises. The man calls himself Mr Robot.
Played by a thoroughly revitalised Christian Slater, he seems knowing, shrewd… almost prescient in his observations. A Matrix-esque choice ensues, but this time the revolution isn’t futuristic, and the foe isn’t alien. It’s as immediate and pervasive as the notifications lighting up your screen this very second.
Riffing on socially conscious dystopian dramas like V for Vendetta (James McTeigue, 2005) ‘F Society’ are revealed as a group of would-be vigilante hackers, each united by a common goal: erase the debt record. Start again, everyone goes back to zero. Sound familiar? Now, now. Remember the first rule. Let’s not talk about it. From here, the story focuses on the group’s frenetic attempts to dismantle E-Corp, a ubiquitous, multi-national conglomerate with unyielding supremacy and power. Here we meet Tyrell Wellick, (Martin Wallström) a flashy, clean-cut CFO with some questionable tendencies. More Bateman than boss, Tyrell’s ruthless quest for power is by turns disturbing, compelling and completely engrossing. The callousness of the corporate hierarchy is picked apart with surgical precision, brilliantly examining its corruption and greed with verve and flair. Back in Elliot’s world, he’s barely functioning: snorting morphine capsules from the worn desk of his stuffy New York apartment, struggling to assimilate, live, work, survive. Yet when it comes to the realm of computing and hacking, he’s competent, even dexterous. This is his element, his escape. The machine instils him with all of the attributes his real life lacks, even if the results are ultimately to the detriment of everyone around him. Pitting these two worlds against each other, Esmail creates a feverishly exciting grapple for control as chaos and pandemonium inevitably run amuck. And so begins a twisty, riveting saga of corporate conspiracy and espionage, bolstered by a fascinating supporting cast. This combination punctuates a wonderful balance of intimate human drama and grand, extensive set-pieces, all of which amounts to a superb amalgamation of style, substance, and everything in between.
Mr Robot is an excellent consolidation of two disparate classes of filmmaking. The show’s opposing elements complementing each other fantastically well. Indeed, there’s something eminently cine-literate about Esmail’s creation; something that transcends cheap homage and builds upon a barrage of influences, ultimately creating something altogether exciting and new. The storytelling is absorbing in that classical Hollywood kind of way, yet it never feels overhanded or didactic. Entire episodes serve as beautifully crafted love letters to genre conventions: there’s a silent heist, a surrealist sitcom, a stage-mounted theatre drama a la 12 Angry Men (Sidney Lumet, 1957). The style and sweep of the show is gorgeous, drawing on influences as vast as Lynch, Zemeckis, Cronenberg and many more. Characters are constantly tested and pushed to their limits, and it's almost always rousing. There’s no moronic exposition. Esmail’s narrative points aren’t spelled out as exacting certainties. They exist in a murky grey area, where respect for a thoughtful, considerate audience is privileged above the overhanded spoon-feeding of narrative and plot. Musical choices are intelligently placed. The visuals are inventive and resourceful, constantly foregrounding uncanny framing techniques that serve as reflections of Elliot’s dwindling mind state, and the collective experience of those existing on the fringes of society. It’s constantly reiterated without being repetitive, and is just of many brilliant flourishes the series has to offer.
If he isn’t constantly embroiling himself in daring capers, Elliot’s behaviours constantly verge into unethical territories. His decisions are manic, ill-informed. And yet, there always seems to be a twisted sense of righteousness in what he does. In the end, we understand his motivations. Regardless of the stakes, we never seem to question his pledge to decency, dubious as it may sometimes seem. Perhaps most importantly, we side with him. His exploits are always in service of some perceived greater good – some well-meaning oversight that seems to justify the choices he makes, and the decisions he must invariably live with. This, along with Esmail brilliant supervision of the show’s overarching themes and ideas, make Mr Robot one of the most compelling cinematic shows in recent years.
Mr Robot is currently available on DVD, Blu-Ray and Amazon Prime