When describing Externo, the debut film from Leandro and Jonathan Taub, its easy to banish it to realms of fantasy by merely calling it a stunning fever dream. That wouldn’t do this modern parable justice as it looks to the larger landscape of the world by letting us behind the curtain of a story most wouldn’t dare to believe. Similar in scope to films like Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color, Externo is experimental to say the least but it walks the line between honesty and cynicism while actively engaging its audience in a discussion of corruption, mankind and the power of wealth in a world obsessed by the superficial while attempting to look at what might represent the soul of humanity, if that is even possible.
Opening on Joseph (Leandro Taub), a man standing alone in the woods with $2000 dollars to his name and nothing else. At first he sets out to accumulate wealth by twisting industry to his will, exploiting the same kind of loopholes businessmen of the real world do, but this isn’t the real world. Joseph exists in a place entirely of his own, a self imposed isolation and he speaks with nameless faceless minions, people willing to do what he says, no questions asked, no thought given. The abandoned buildings he spends his time patrolling, ones coated in old graffiti and overgrown with foliage feel like the after affects of this man’s avarice, both shocking and beautiful in equal measure. Exquisitely shot by cinematographers Jesse Mickle and Jonas Schneider, this world is both empty and open but at the same time lonely and cramped, a timeless, airless void. Joseph’s world might be heaven or it might be the burnt out remains of a world ruined by his greed.
However as he roams his kingdom he finds himself troubled by the presence of a woman (Elisabeth Ehrlich), one he refuses to appreciate. Is it his own moral compass or the people he uses as pawns personified, does Joseph even know? This is where Externo stumbles as the clean, thought out plans Joseph makes, the fast paced Machiavellian machinations that keep the wheels of this story turning give way to a half baked love story. This tale of fighting against your own nature for the sake of someone else, one that is half dance, half fight never links into the larger story the Taub’s are telling. Although Taub and Ehrlich have an unspoken chemistry, a push and pull, the film’s script here is too lacking in real connection. Their dance seems to represent Externo’s until now dormant heart but it feels strangely cold, lacking in the soul Joseph constantly talks about in his loaded monologues.
What works best here is the hypothetical nature of Leandro Taub’s script, one where every monstrosity that Joseph carries out in the name of power feels strangely plausible, something that could happen in the real world while we turn the other cheek, or forgive away the indiscretion with our own apathy. The more Joseph falls down the rabbit hole, the worse his actions become as the film runs the gamut from war profiteering to intentionally starting an epidemic to further his financial holdings in a pharmaceutical company. The Taub’s from the very start in big bold letters proclaim Externo to be fiction, large letters spanning the entire screen but really how far from the truth could some of this be. It’s a question that papers over the cracks of a film lacking in the humanity it all too frequently alludes to, never quite connecting to it.
While engrossed in the idea of being a force for change, Externo and more specifically Joseph’s revolutionary actions, seems to be more of a nudge for an audience to be more informed, more engaged and more curious, not just in the allegories here but in the way we see the world outside of these eighty or so minutes. The Taub brother’s debut film, is ambitious and probing but in the end it dances around what constitutes right or wrong and the almost cultish pull of power. The real change Externo wants to create is inside its viewers by ringing some kind of symbolic bell in our minds. For this viewer however, all it really did was show me where it was, never making a big enough impact to make a lasting sound.