Rami Malek gives an outstanding performance in the initial episode of "Mr. Robot", a promising thriller series from USA debuting this summer. I caught a special screening at Google hdqts. today and was impressed with the premise and his powerhouse acting.
The Ryan Philippe/Tim Robbins movie ANTITRUST, made 15 years ago, is the precedent that came to mind for this paranoid thriller which falls neatly in the vein of THE PARALLAX VIEW and other classics about conspiracies. Creator/writer Sam Esmail has bitten off a big topic, as our hero (or antihero possibly?) goes up against E (for Evil) corporation, a vast conglomerate that encapsulates our worst fears about how the contemporary world is rigged by just a few powerful & shadowy figures against the rest of its inhabitants.
For this 62-minute opener, the ground was set for future episodes, as well as delivering a satisfying one-off story for starters. Most unusual aspects of the pilot are its truly dark mood and serious tone, plus the incredible emphasis on the central character.
Rami Malek as Elliot, a computer whiz working at a Manhattan cyber security company which has E as its chief client, is in every single scene of the hour, and dominates nearly all of them, with his heavy narration (including interjecting his thoughts) talking directly to the viewer who he terms an "imaginary" audience. There is a crucial pivot after the halfway point, when previously dangled before us in cameos Christian Slater as the mysterious "Mr. Robot" takes over center stage and begins to manipulate our hero and hint at a counter-conspiracy of even greater potential power than the evil powers-that-be.
Beyond the computer techno-babble (which of course elicited some chuckles from the theatrical audience of Googlers on a lunch hour break), what really made this series work for me is the bug-eyed (when necessary) spooky performance of Malek as we are invited to wonder is he crazy, is he merely imagining things, or is this social misfit going to save our world? I grew up addicted to morbid TV shows ("The Outer Limits" most obviously) like David Janssen in "The Fugitive" and its lighter but also effective Ben Gazzara clone "Run for Your Life", and Malek's anti-hero dovetails nicely with these brooding, romantic '60s figures and TV icons.
Other cast members made a nice impression, though it was difficult to get one's foot in the door opposite Malek's one-man-show. Michael Gill as his boss Gideon was quite sympathetic and had a smashing (and needed) comic relief scene aboard a private plane alone with Malek when the boss "comes out", announcing to the bewildered introvert that he's gay, for no particular reason confiding in Elliot.
Portia Doubleday is arresting as theoretically a love interest for Elliot, though as a co-worker she already has a comic relief boyfriend (also co-worker) who wants everybody to like him, even the untouchable Elliot. Guest star in first episode Gloria Reuben as Elliot's shrink and sounding board was also a good foil, as Malek insists on meddling in hers and everyone else's life according to his whim. I hope the producers don't head too far into "The Equalizer" territory that at times is suggested.
His is a most complex character and I suspect part of the fun of watching the show will be to calibrate week to week how much the viewer identifies with him and his actions or disagrees with his peculiar tactics and issues. I can't recall such a self- divided frankly mixed-up hero since the Golden Age of film noir nearly 70 years ago.
With Slater positioned to move potently in and out of the storyline at will, this otherwise top- heavy project could catch on, especially given today's audience having such a propensity for ingesting dark subject matter ("Banshee", "American Horror Story", "True Detective" and "Hannibal" to name a few).