Reviews Short Narrative

The Mole (2020) – 1.5 stars

Director: Ambrose Smoke

Writer: Ambrose Smoke

Cast: Lauren Engels, Jonathon Sawdon, Benita Katende, Paula Isiegas

Running time:  19mins

Ambrose Smoke. The syllables roll easily around the synapses. The kind of name you might find in the pages of an Elmore Leonard noir where Hollywood meets the Mob. Smoke is the writer and director of The Mole and is also responsible for the soundtrack – this is very much an auteur project. Regrettably, the director’s moniker is, bar a couple of minor production ticks, the only praiseworthy feature of the movie.  

The film starts promisingly with what appears to be a satirical take on a job interview for a senior position at some global capitalist corporation. A young woman (Angie, played by Lauren Engels) with a ‘stellar’ academic record is being questioned by a middle-aged male executive. When it comes to the bullshit ‘why should we give you the job’ question the interviewer winds the woman up so she is shouting and enraged. It is fun and feeds the fantasies that many of have as to how Goldman Sachs must conduct their interviews. But then two realisations hit the viewer. Firstly, it becomes apparent that this is not satire – this is for real.

Secondly, we meet the Mole. The director does well here in that at the start of the scene we only see Angie’s torso and lower face but as her temper rises the camera pans to full face and we catch sight of the Mole. To you or me, a mole is maybe a bump or a mark on the skin, but this Mole is as though part of Angie’s brain has escaped the casing of the skull and flowered on her forehead. We realise that this is going to be a film about disfigurement.

The problem here is that the director instead of giving the character one of the myriads of mundane horrors that can distort a human face has given us something sci-fi and Alien. We later learn when Angie visits a doctor how special the Mole is as it is fed by an artery direct from the brain. So, we have a kind of faux realism – the director is asking us to engage with Angie’s struggle whilst demanding that we accept the fantastical nature of her disfigurement. This is a wrong call – the Mole looks ludicrous and renders the entire production ridiculous.

Angie gets the job. Smoke shows us her relentless rise through the ranks of the, imaginatively named, Global Corporation. Smoke’s depictions of corporate life are risible – they seem to pack in every cliché of corporate life – the Bitch Colleague, the cigar smoking and coke snorting boss, and so on. Although, I did enjoy the touch where the boss uses the glass of the framed family photograph on his desk to chop out a line. As he does this, the boss delivers a remarkable Social Darwinist soliloquy packed with every platitude of that particular ideology. Angie’s career reaches its zenith when she is asked to present in person the Corporate Self-Awareness Report to the Board.

After the presentation, the director has the entire board rise to give Angie a standing ovation. An elated Angie asks whether there are any questions. The CEO, the wonderfully named Mr Katanga, ventures, “where do we go from here?” Angie responds with the lapidary line, “the sky is the limit – you have a corporate army at your command.” A priceless piece of cinema – for an instant, I half-expected the board members to launch into a song and dance number. Following Angie’s triumph, a delighted Mr Katanga asks her to be head of global sales, the ‘face’ of the organisation. Angie is directly confronted with the fact of her disfigurement and the film takes a darker turn.

A question that came to mind reviewing The Mole was whether I was watching bad acting or competent actors saddled with an awful formulaic script. I concluded it was a mixture of the two – there are some woeful, stilted performances but the problem is how one convinces when one has to deliver banality piled upon banality. Smoke’s choice of setting the story in the world of global capital, which, on the evidence of The Mole, the director knows little about and has no feel for is a major contributory factor. The old saw of creative writing classes – write about what you know – is sometimes relevant to indy filmmaking.

Meanwhile, I felt sorry for Benita Katende in the role of Angie’s flatmate or lover (intimated but never clarified) given a cardboard cut-out role as down to earth carer to contrast the high-flying lead. As for Engels in the lead role, despite the twin burdens she was labouring under, of the prosthetic Mole and the script, there were hints in her performance of a decent actor struggling to survive the debacle.

On the positive side, The Mole, apart from the ill-judged prosthetic, is well-filmed and produced and shows that Smoke has an eye for what works visually as cinema. Benjamin Reynoso does a good job on the cinematography – the film looks OK and some of the darker scenes toward the end are vividly rendered. At the same time, Smoke’s work on the soundtrack is a pleasant surprise – it is sparse, minimal, only a few chord sequences but apposite and used to telling effect.

In the end, however, this does little to detract from how poorly judged the greater sum of the film is. Appearance is one of the last frontiers of discrimination in the workplace and nowhere is it a defined characteristic with any sort of legal protection. There is an important film to be made on the subject but sadly The Mole is not that movie. In particular, the decision to fabulise Angie’s disfigurement lies at the core of the failure.

This is the directorial debut of Smoke, and so all of the above is slightly more understandable. With that being said, many lessons need to be learned to justify any kind of follow-up. I would suggest in any future project that bringing in a script writer is essential, as dialogue and characterisation are definitely not executed well in this screenplay. At the same time, Smoke has showed with the soundtrack that music can add depth – so possibly a future project might usefully mix film and music without any need for narrative. Most importantly, though, a filmmaker needs to be their own critic to avoid further write-ups like this. Having self-confidence is one thing, but to have thought The Mole was in any kind of shape to be inflicted on an unsuspecting public suggests a failure of Smoke’s critical faculties of biblical proportions.

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