Seen at the Sydney Underground Film Festival
One of the more fun things that have been happening over the last several years is just watching slowly as more and more people develop an attitude that can best be described as “Hey, those people who collected Marie Antoinette’s head had the right idea, maybe it’s approaching time to do that again to a different bunch of rich assholes”. It seems like the majority of us have finally cottoned onto the idea that we’re not going to become independently wealthy and those who already have the money won’t be sharing any time soon. Pointing out the power and influence the wealthy hold is certainly a great idea for a film… Externo tries it, kinda succeeds, but also kinda bores.
Externo tells the completely fictional tale of Joseph (Leandro Taub), a businessman with a couple of thousand dollars to his name who uses his knowledge of the financial systems to slowly build power and influence. This totally fake story that absolutely could not happen (as the film reminds us, sarcastically, multiple times throughout the film) is told mostly as a one-man show filled with metaphor, innuendo and every other arthouse trick that has ever arthoused. By the end of the film, will Joseph’s $2000 allow him the chance to run the world? Well… probably not but again, this is a totally fake story so who knows.
On a very technical level, Externo is spectacular. For a film that’s mostly just one guy either talking on the phone, talking to the audience or just walking around while a narrator explores more and more ideas about the power of wealth, it’s a visual delight. The central performance is captivating enough to carry an entire film, which is good because that’s basically what the entire film is. It’s one man trying to explain the relationship between wealth and power as best as he can with as little excess as possible in order to try and be direct… and then they go full arthouse film and it kinda makes the message not work.
There’s been a lot of comparisons between Externo and The Big Short and on a narrative level that’s true, both films used financial issues as a key element of the film. However, The Big Short is a wildly entertaining film with a compelling narrative that smartly dressed up its discussions of the global financial crisis to the nines, after all if you’re going to have to explain subprime mortgages to a viewing audience why not have Margot Robbie sit in a bubble bath while she explains that boring concept? Well, Externo doesn’t have Margot Robbie in a bubble bath, it has Leandro Taub in a ruined building talking in metaphors and THAT is not compelling.
The message behind Externo is a genuinely important one, even with its playful joke about how this is all fake, the idea that it’s the wealthy pulling the strings of politicians to get what they need in order to create more wealth isn’t some conspiracy, it’s just what happens (as an example, the extension of Copyright law is sometimes called the Mickey Mouse Protection Act because Disney pushed hard for it and used his connections to get the length of copyright increased so they never have to lose the rights to that damn mouse… wealthy person using influence in order to make more money). This is something Externo really tries to hammer home with its grand tale of a single man pulling the strings of everyone and it’s a powerful message – but it’s just not told that well.
When I say that Externo is mostly one guy talking in metaphors, that’s a mild exaggeration…. It’s not just the talk that’s a metaphor, but the cutaways from the main action are metaphors, the dancing is a metaphor, everything is a metaphor and it’s all just trying so hard to be so smart about this topic that it borders on the precipice of pretentious. The idea that it’s trying to get across is absolutely important, but it’s hard to imagine that this is going to really connect with an audience who will be turned off before they even get to chapter 17.
There is a lot about Externo to respect, from the importance of its message to the power of its lead performance to the visual flair that went into making this as visually compelling as it could be… and all of that is hampered dramatically by the fact that the film just never quite manages to sell itself. I’m not saying every film about the ills of finances needs Margot Robbie in a bathtub, but it’s a topic that’s already hard enough for people to really follow and care about so you have to give them something they can find engaging and there’s just not a lot here that will accomplish that task.