Directed by Alexander Salazar
Written by Gregory P. Wolk
Starring Justin Lebrun, Martin Copping, and Sally McDonald
Indie Film Review by Euan Franklin
In any workplace, there’s always an arsehole at the top. Whenever power is given to humanity’s worst, an overwhelming sense of tyranny pervades the environment. Just look at Donald Trump, the greatest and most disturbing example of all time. But in the new indie from Alexander Salazar, the workers get their own back on the arsehole-in-charge.
A Lesson in Cruelty follows Julian Hassole (Justin Lebrun), the head of Hassole Bank, as he walks through his days insulting everyone who works for him – from his assistant to the mailman. But his days are numbered when the degraded workers gather together and plan their vengeance to take the power for themselves… by murdering him.
The most attractive aspect of A Lesson in Cruelty is its surrealism. Even though the humour is largely hit-or-miss (trying hard to be edgy), the intrigue is maintained by Gregory P. Wolk’s wacky screenplay. The opening credits sooth you into its strangeness, with Julian Hassole dancing (style: uncertain) through corridors and hallways with everyone watching and, eventually, joining in – similar to Steve Coogan’s intro in Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa. Unlike Partridge, this scene doesn’t have the same comedic effect, but does prepare us for the bizarre story to come.
Julian’s workers plan their deceit for his birthday party, at which everyone is dressed in Roman togas and treat Julian as an emperor. A Caesar-like assassination takes place, which (somehow) leads to a satirical poke at the Trump administration. Wolk’s dark, surreal style – a mix of Luis Buñuel and Armando Iannucci – is entertaining and fits nicely with Julian’s egomania and epic self-delusions. But the film’s direction is never really established. We have no idea where it’s going, which is good in itself – but it ends up going nowhere, which is bad overall.
The characters are written with a desire to be vaguely controversial, in the same way that shows like South Park wheel out a stereotype to challenge various prejudices. Wolk introduces an Orthodox Jew, a Russian blonde, a Chinese woman, and an African-American man to all fall victim to Julian’s ignorant humiliations. This does provide a few satirical chuckles, but we’ve seen these on-screen situations hundreds of times before. A Lesson in Cruelty doesn’t provide a new or interesting approach, believing that simply by showing prejudice it’ll be funny (in itself) to laugh at.
The performances aren’t particularly good either, and often try too hard – like eager children in school plays – with Lebrun being the most potent example. His acting is too exaggerated, even for the cartoonish character he’s playing. However, he does provide moments of decent comic timing and Salazar makes sure he has a booming, unforgettable presence in the film.
A Lesson in Cruelty has many inadequacies and, for a comedy, it’s not too funny either. But Wolk and Salazar excel in the absurd, plunging us into their weird imaginations.
Watch the official movie trailer for A Lesson in Cruelty below…