SXSW 2017 Review | It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Workplace in ‘Mayhem’

Joe Lynch’s incendiary horror-comedy proves that, with a little imagination, NOTHING is safe for work.

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani

It doesn’t take a genius to point out that civilization as we know it hangs by a very precarious thread, one that’s tied loosely our capacity for self-control. We don’t kill people who anger us, we don’t blurt out every mean thing we think. If everybody acted on every impulse they had, all the time, it would probably be chaos out there or in here or wherever you are. It would be… well, it would be Mayhem, wouldn’t it?

Joe Lynch’s manically destructive horror-comedy takes place at Towers & Smythe Consulting, a law firm where Derek Cho (Steven Yeun) has only recently started selling his soul for profit. Only his nagging conscience seems to be holding him back, so when Derek’s superiors – “The Boss” (Steven Brand), “The Siren” (Caroline Chikezie) and “The Reaper” (Dallas Roberts) – conspire to throw him under the boss he’s an easy target. He can barely control his frustration, anger and rage, and they were just about to kick him out the door when a SWAT team arrives and puts the entire office building under quarantine.

That’s because Mayhem takes place in a world with a strange new virus, one that robs human beings of each and every filter. They say every awful thought, they act on every murderous and sexual impulse. Even their depressions are off the charts. And thanks to Derek’s clever legal precedent, anyone afflicted by this disease – which wears off in less than a day – can’t be held accountable for any crimes committed while they were infected.

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So basically mayhem completely breaks out. It’s an aptly titled film. Derek ascends to the top of the building, which is now populated entirely by potentially homicidal co-workers and bosses who now act like proper video game bosses, outsized and especially deadly. Derek and his cohort Melanie (Samara Weaving), who was only visiting the building to fight an eviction, arm themselves with blue collar tools from the basement – hammers, wrenches, nail guns, electric saws – and slice and bludgeon their way to through the white collar food chain.

It’s a cool idea, filmed with Joe Lynch’s trademarked exuberance and reeking of his very wry sense of humor. But what makes Mayhem feel particularly special is that, alone amongst the many horror-thrillers were people are suddenly forced to try to kill each other, every single character is going mad simultaneously. No one is arguing in favor of sanity, nobody is sitting this one out. Everyone is afflicted, everyone has a perfect excuse to go completely nuts, and thanks to the machinations of a particularly clever plot device, nobody resists the urge.

This is particularly good news for Mayhem’s cast, all of whom convincingly play the icy workplace politics of the film’s first act, and all of whom chew every line of dialogue in the second and third act (if they last that long) like it was their last meal. Steven Yeun and Samara Weaving are comic gold together. They are every rom-com couple you’ve ever seen, but only the bickering parts, and also they kill lawyers together. Yeun in particular gives an eye-opening performance. The camera absolutely loves him and it seems to be mutual: he’s handsome, witty, and sells even the weirdest lines of dialogue like they’re natural and have some sort of deeper meaning.

Mayhem is the best kind of controlled chaos. It raises your spirits even as it confirms your ugliest suspicions. It’s a spectacular horror-comedy, one that genuinely deserves the big promotion.

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William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon, and watch him on the weekly YouTube series What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.