Feature Narrative Reviews

Externo (2021) – 4 stars

Director: Jonathan Taub & Leandro Taub

Writers: Leandro Taub

Cast: Leandro Taub, Elizabeth Ehrlich & Christian Bargados

Running time: 1hr 23mins

Centuries of the consolidation of wealth and power under of the incumbent status quo have long since seen their will deified in culture. Because we have by and large forgotten that the economy or state are human constructions which serve certain interests of certain people, we have internalised the notion that the market, or politics have wills of their own. These constructs are attributed some kind of divine essence, and those who thrive within the economic and or governmental realms are subsequently thought to be most in tune to that essence – peerless interpreters of the shapeless, nameless forces that shape our lives from cradle to grave.

Long before Donald Trump, millionaires and billionaires have effortlessly propelled themselves into the corridors of power on this basis – and will likely continue to do so for some time yet. After all, these people know how to best interpret the will of the economy, and that faith has placed them at the head of society. They are, to money, as Aztec priests once were to the sun god Huitzilopochtli – and just as willing to make sacrifices of us all to consolidate that status.

Just as the existence of Batman necessitates a Joker, however, the cultural perception of supposedly untouchable guardians of the status quo often leads narratives centring on social change to require protagonists with near-supernatural abilities of their own. The latest adaptation of this archetypal narrative comes from the Taub Brothers’ first feature-length collaboration: Externo.

As mentioned recently by Indy Film Library’s Tony Moore in his review of The Journeyman, we have moved on from tales of physically gifted humans tearing the limbs of shadowy horrors in the folklore of old – the Beowulf of today needs to be able to play the game instead. He needs to be able to programme, to interpret market trends, and understand how to leverage the power of states against one another to dance his way through the battle, and finally slay the beast. In this case, we follow Joseph (played by Leandro Taub – who also provided the script) as he lays siege to the rich and the powerful via a campaign of digital manoeuvres on his smart phone, from a dilapidated building in the middle of a dense, unspecified forest.

The selection of such a humble location serves the film on multiple levels. It works as a reasonable foil for why it is so hard for the powers that be to find Joseph (as long as you buy the assertion Joseph is digitally gifted enough to cloak the whereabouts of his Google Tracking Device™) – while, like the radio studio of Pontypool, it also serves as a budget-friendly wallpaper that accentuates just how remarkable the ensuing action is. The walls of the old ruined office block are used to project images and figures pertaining to the birth of a new world, out from the rubble of the last. With $2,000, a bog-standard smart phone, and a pair of opposable thumbs, Joseph steadily accrues money and power – from ruins to riches – that eventually holds the potential to change everything.

All the way through, the measured, cold Joseph’s intentions remain cloaked – we are left wondering if he is simply some aimless mega-mind, limited by ideological trappings which mean he ultimately only uses his gifts to ascend the social hierarchy like a video-game, à la Limitless? Maybe he is looking to win power to remodel the world in his own image, like the eponymous lead in The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer, where a PR guru in the early 1970s (the digital shaman of his day) mercilessly deploys opinion polls and referendums to eventually yield the utter destruction of liberal democracy. Or maybe he is fulfilling some base instinct to consume like the similarly unkempt lead villain of Borgman? Certainly, the moments of delirious dance which punctuate Joseph’s most grievous and sinister machinations (reticent of Joaquin Phoenix’s descent into the Joker persona) would speak to that…

I won’t reveal what Externo is ultimately building towards, but what I will say is that like all of the above, it suffers a little for the fact it is so individually centred. As much as our atomised society would have you believe that any one of us can make a lone stand, and beat the odds to transform the world, the truth is that when a single human looks to transform the world, it ends in tears – either as they are quickly swatted aside, or as they become the very monstrous establishment they had hoped to displace.

Contrary to this top-down view of the world, looking at human history, those at the top have only allowed for progress when facing mass revolt, or being toppled by it. Feudalism only ceded power to the emergent middle classes of early capitalism after a series of popular uprisings – which notably cost monarchs in the UK and France their heads – while many things people now take for granted (universal suffrage, weekends, sick pay, public healthcare, desegregated civic spaces, etc.) are the result of generations of trade union activity or civil rights activism. Systemic change is not as easy as all that, then, and suggesting otherwise can make a film about it grating and unengaging.

Fortunately, the Taubs evade these trappings, by deploying some wonderfully shameless postmodernism. If it had have gone down a more conventional route, playing out as if all of this were feasible, Externo would be ripe for picking apart by pedants such as myself – however, the Taubs routinely subvert the mainstream conventions of narrative structure and characterisation, while utterly trashing the audience’s suspension of disbelief.

Throughout the film, a series of textual vignettes assert the fact that this is just a story – and while it might contain some philosophical points worth thinking on beyond the end credits, the events of the narrative are not replicable in reality. The strange, extended text contradictions drag occasionally, but when they do it almost takes on a kind of absurdist humour – eliciting an enjoyable Coen Brothers-meets-Monty Python vibe.

Indeed, even within the here-and-now of Joseph’s lived experience, he becomes increasingly aware that he cannot do it all by himself. The booming voice of Zeta (Christian Bargados) – a nagging super-ego or inspiring deity to Joseph in different moments – and the inescapable gravitational pull of She (Elizabeth Ehrlich) steadily encroach into his plans, Joseph realises his new world will quickly crumble, if it is disconnected from the other communal forces of human life.

Out of this, we gain an understanding that there are certain things which the Taubs want to see changed in the world – but we never lose sight of the fact that they are addressing this way out of artistic necessity. It is always easier, particularly for independent filmmakers, to show one scheming genius turn the world upside down than to explain the mechanics of the global upheaval that would actually take. What we take away from Externo in this case is not some new belief that “yes, if I just took up coding, I could be the Neo our world needs to change things,” but rather, “if anything is to really alter, how would we do that?”

Externo is a unique tapestry of different artistic styles and techniques, all bound together to tell a strange and subversive story. It manages to pull off a deft balancing act, taking itself seriously while winking knowingly to on-lookers who are aware of the limits of its reality, Bugs Bunny style. In spite of its small cast and limited locations, it takes us on an adrenaline-pumping tour of the world, as its morally ambiguous lead begs us to ask whether his ends justify his means, and what means we might substitute instead.

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