Polish-American filmmaker Filip Jan Rymsza’s first directorial outing since 2007 (he’s been producing in the interim) is set on the eve of the 2007-08 market crisis, but don’t expect a factual drama like Margin Call (2011) or The Big Short (2015). Mosquito State has more of the surreal, sinister air of films like Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy (2013), and while there’s certainly a good dollop of Cronenbergian body horror, it’s not a horror movie in the conventional sense. It’s tough to slot into any genre, really, and much of its meaning is elusive, but the difficulty in figuring out what to make of it contributes to its disturbing effect.
It opens as it means to go on, with extreme close-ups of mosquito larvae (presumably CGI, but inevitably recalling the amazing ant photography by Ken Middleham in Saul Bass’s equally disquieting 1974 sci-fi horror Phase IV).
Richard (Beau Knapp) is a brilliant, socially awkward analyst at a Wall Street brokerage, responsible for creating a computer system that anticipates market movements and performs trades accordingly. He doesn’t fit in well with his loud, jock-ish colleagues, but he’s a golden goose bringing the firm a lot of money and is fabulously rich as a result, living in a huge apartment overlooking Central Park.
He’s also recently been a meal for a mosquito, and the bite causes his face to swell up horrifically, while seemingly causing him to become preoccupied with said insects. Before long he’s feeding them in his apartment, talking to them, and apparently breeding them, as well as trying to form a friendship—or more than that—with a girl called Lena (Charlotte Vega), and warning his boss Edward (Olivier Martinez) that the algorithmic trading he’s masterminded is going to cause disaster.
The film’s largely given over to examining Richard’s three relationships (Lena, Edward, the mosquitoes), and while the first two are realistic enough, the third one leads Mosquito State into ever more peculiar places—sometimes beautiful but always with a threatening undercurrent. For example, there’s a terrific short scene where Richard’s lying on his bed, regarding a mosquito that has settled on his arm; he goes to swat it but doesn’t, apparently accepting it, and there’s a real physical intimacy to the brief encounter between man and insect that many films fail to achieve in depicting human couples.
Knapp’s Richard is consistently the focus, and he’s terrific. At first, it seems he might be slightly overdoing the gauche-nerd act (he walks with an odd lope, he can’t stop moving his head, he doesn’t even speak for the first quarter of an hour despite being at the centre of scenes), but Knapp slowly lets us see a fuller person behind the gawkiness, a sense of humour, temper, and passion. He has self-knowledge, too: “I don’t know how this works”, he confesses to Lena, and even while the mosquitoes are starting to take over his mind it’s clear that he wishes he was a bit savvier in the world of dating and girlfriends.
Vega’s Lena is a far more open and self-assured character, but again she reveals more beneath the surface as the film progresses. She’s not just a stereotyped confident city businesswoman. There’s a scene toward the end where she does so much with a subtle change of expression: she’s with Richard in his apartment, and as he blows out the citronella candles he’s arranged around the place to (temporarily) subdue the mosquitoes, a look of fear creeps across her face. It’s apparent she doesn’t totally trust him. But then the fear turns to wonder as the hordes of insects appear, swirling in ever-changing abstract patterns around the vast space of his living room.
Also very effective, in smaller roles, are Audrey Wasilewski as Richard’s secretary (she obviously notices everything, but doesn’t feel it her place to comment, until things have gone so far that she can’t ignore them), and Martinez’s arrogant, unempathetic boss.
And there’s much to like in the production, too, from the stylishly grotesque titles by Dan Perri (Star Wars, The Exorcist) to the very elegant, cold photography by Eric Koretz, occasionally verging on the abstract. Colour grading in Richard’s apartment, especially, tells some of the story in itself: a chilly technological blue to start with, then red as he becomes more emotional and less stable. (At his first meeting with Lena, he’d cried because he missed his usual wake-up time, and she’d told him he had to learn to let go of routines; now, he declares, “I’m letting go”.)
Finally, the dominant tone of the apartment is green as he metamorphoses into… well, what? The conclusion of Mosquito State is difficult to read. Has something transcendent happened to Richard, or has he simply lost his mind? This lack of overt resolution will nag some viewers, but then this is a film that hints at ideas rather than presenting them unmistakably.
The mosquitoes (bloodsuckers!) and their apparently chaotic movement are presumably intended to parallel the financial markets themselves (Richard’s trading system is called Honeybee, too) and there’s talk of unpredictable “black swan” events (including a glimpsed shot of Trump on TV while everyone is busy discussing Obama and Clinton).
But the underlying concern of Rymsza’s film may be environmental. Just as the markets monitored on Richard’s flickering screen are in danger of running out of control, so are the swarming, whining insects in his apartment, and so perhaps is the whole of nature. Maybe, then, the spoilage of a valuable bottle of wine which Richard and Lena discover is corked is the key moment in Mosquito State: nothing, not even his great affluence, can prevent the destructiveness of natural processes.
Mosquito State doesn’t totally succeed. Its division into chapters based on the mosquito’s life cycle is obscure in meaning, the dialogue can be a bit unnatural, and one scene where Richard actually orates to the insects is downright silly.
But it’s strange and compelling, always seeming to be on the verge of a great revelation that never comes. We can’t fully understand it, but nor can we fully understand the behaviour of mosquitoes or the financial markets, and it’s that sense of an explanation just concealed from our understanding that makes Rymsza’s film so tantalizing and memorable.
POLAND • USA | 2020 | 100 MINUTES | 2.00:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
Cast & Crew
director: Filip Jan Rymsza.
writers: Filip Jan Rymsza & Mario Zermeno.
starring: Beau Knapp, Charlotte Vega, Jack Kesy & Olivier Martinez.