It can all start from one person but spread rapidly. No, I’m not talking about a pandemic, I’m talking about the “Disease of Me”, which permeates so many aspects of our society, but is perhaps most severe in corporate America. That crisis of culture takes center stage in Mayhem, an action-comedy about one person’s journey through the shark tank of corporate enterprise, while a virus-outbreak has threatened the safety of the nation.
The fictional virus in question is ID-7, nicknamed “Red Eye” for the bloodshot eye that afflicts all of the infected. But what makes the disease dangerous as it’s an alleviation of one’s inhibitions, prompting the infected to act on all impulses up to, and including murder. One news report even states that ID-7 won’t kill you – but the people who have it will. This disrupts all of civilian life, including the offices of Towers and Smythe Consulting (a made-up name that sounds very made-up), the law firm where we find Derek Cho (Steven Yeun). Cho is hard working, but apathetic to his environment as the daily grind of corporate life has slowly beaten the happiness out of him. He’s aggressive, condescending, and seems to care more about the whereabouts of his coffee mug than attending his sister’s birthday. So essentially, he’s a perfect fit for this firm.
But the incredibly hectic nature of the office is exacerbated when all employees have to be quarantined inside the building once the virus hits the firm. This isn’t a surprise at all; Towers and Smythe display the same level of commitment to social distancing as a masked party in Eyes Wide Shut. Meanwhile, as the office is erupting in chaos, Cho is in a fight for his job. He’s been blackballed by a shady co-worker, and his only hope for survival is appealing to the execs on the top floor – only he still has to get there amid the carnage caused by Red Eye.
The parallels to our own world, sans the film’s exaggerated aspects, are easy to see. We’re currently living in an uncertain time both socially and economically, but Mayhem takes that anxiety and brings it to its absurd zenith. The film was originally released in 2017, which explains it’s rather a carefree tone. The film successfully lampoons our insecurities and our propensity to fall in line within the social herd. One of Cho’s co-workers is diligently fitness-obsessed, but once his inhibitions are removed he proclaims “You think I like the taste of kale?! Come on, I’m fucking dead inside!”
Cho himself is an enabler, allowing the unethical aspects of his employer to go unquestioned, a perfect match for the firm’s hypocrisy. The company is a cesspool of greed and moral decay but screens its workers based on honesty and integrity. Basically, it’s ok for you to steal from me, but not the other way around, right? It isn’t until Cho’s livelihood is threatened that he starts to question his actions and his complicity with a shallow and harmful organization.
Cho’s enlightenment is accentuated by his fascination with the film’s true moral center – Melanie (Samara Weaving). Weaving always seems to be overqualified for the movie she’s in, and it’s no different here, but her inclusion here is where the film’s heart & soul is revealed. Melanie is fighting against the firm to prevent the eviction of herself and several other tenants, and her moral philosophy eloquently reveals the ideals on the mind of this big silly movie. One such ideal is a mediation on how the little transgressions matter; even if we didn’t create a system, our compliance with it still empowers the system.
While Melanie is a well-written character, it helps to have a blossoming star-like Weaving at the helm. She fills every frame with charisma and charm. She makes Melanie sympathetic, but never pitiful, and infuses the character with a sense that she’d rather let her down and grab a beer if she didn’t have to fight off these smug capitalists. In addition, her energy perfectly compliments Cho, whose downtrodden attitude on life is in great need of a jolt.
Mayhem was overlooked upon its initial release, but maybe it can find a second life with dedicated cinephiles. You’ll at least come away from it feeling better than if you take the depressed-ridden plunge into Contagion. The film takes the premise of the pandemic disaster-movie but adds exaggerated scenarios and characters to help alleviate anxiety. It’s a satire on people – the ambitious earners whose hard work help keep a system in place, and the wealthy elite who profit off that hard work. Eventually, things get back to normal, and our protagonists learn something from their harsh experiences. Perhaps we, the audience, can do the same.
Mayhem is available for streaming on Shudder and Amazon Prime Video.