Mosquito State (2020) tells the story of Wall Street data analyst Richard Boca (Beau Knapp), who lives an isolated existence in an austere penthouse overlooking Central Park. When he subverts his introverted instincts and attends a company party, he meets the beautiful Lena (Charlotte Vega). At the party, he is bitten by a mosquito.
Soon Richard’s reality starts to descend into nightmarish anxiety. His computer models begin acting erratically, a swarm of mosquitos begins breeding in his apartment, and he’s unable to get Charlotte out of his head.
Director Filip Jan Rymsza’s previous films include Sandcastles (2004), about a construction worker whose routine is inexplicably disrupted, and the existential crisis drama Dustclouds (2007). Mosquito State has shades of each – the themes of obsession, patterns, and crisis – that are integral to the way Boca functions.
In conversation with PopMatters, Rymsza talks about the appeal of stories about the descent into madness and how he prefers to pursue a heightened form of cinema. He also reflects on the influential nature of the media and the perverseness of technological evolution.
Why film as a means of creative expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment for you?
It’s a combination of interests. I was a kid that painted, wrote short stories, and I’m inspired by music. I remember those first movies I went to see on a big screen. My childhood in Poland, especially my early childhood, was such that going to the theatre was an experience. I remember how vividly I took that in. The images stayed with me for a long time. I was a voracious reader as a kid, but I saw all the stories in images.
You don’t know how other people experience the world. As I grew into myself, I realised that was a unique way because not everyone sees things in pictures. Then I started to shape my perspective and realise I have a visual voice, so how do I use that, or not use it?
Once those images start to populate your mind, they haunt you until you put them somewhere, and then new ones start to come in. It’s very therapeutic, or at least it is for me.
Is there a window of time for you to find somewhere to put those ideas before they become difficult or even impossible to express them?
I’m somebody who has a very long gestation period. From the inception point of a man who’s communicating with mosquitos, this film was sitting in the back of my head for a couple of years. Between the idea and the story, pictures and ideas were collecting. There are so many things that are discarded in the incubation period, images that don’t fit. But then you figure out there’s a different place for them to go.
The moment it becomes a cohesive form and I have an idea of what the visual language is, images will come to me that fit the need. You’re tapping into something different then, and as it starts to narrow, I’m flooded with these pictures.
… Good collaborators inspire, and on Mosquito State, I had a wonderful art department. It was a symbiotic relationship. They were into what I was doing and they realised how specific my vision was. The cinematographer Eric [Koretz] and I have seen so many films together that we have a shorthand, but with the art department, it was new. They brought things that inspired me and I began shaping scenes and images around some of what I saw.
The image-making process is a layered one. When I first saw the painting above the bed, I reimagined the one scene because I wanted that to be a background image. The scene was important in terms of Richard’s interaction with the mosquitos, and it was shaped around that painting.
Orson Welles’ adaptation of Franz Kafka’s The Trial (1925) is a famous example of an isolated character lost in their anxieties and trapped in a hostile institutional system. Why do we enjoy these stories?
Characters like Richard see something before any of us do. They go off on this journey, trying to tell people, thinking they have an answer, or they see some great wrong that’s about to mute us all. It’s a fine line between genius and madness. That’s an interesting place to explore.
With The Trial (1962), in both the book and the film, during the descent into madness you don’t know if the protagonist is reliable. I like the exploration of Richard’s character when he starts to go a little mad. You’re going on this journey with him that makes you feel uncomfortable, and I enjoy that type of heightened cinema.
I don’t come from the Dardenne Brothers type of realist, cinéma-vérité. I like films that turn the volume up, that are expressionist, and express an inner life in this way.
We want to be unique, but we also want to belong and feel we’re accepted. Richard is one of those characters that allow us to romanticise the idea of standing out from the crowd. In reality, being the outsider is not pleasant and can lead to feelings of frustration, anger, and anxiety.
Richard doesn’t want to draw any attention to himself. He’s somebody who, outside of the work-life, would rather not even exist. There are so many things that need to happen for him to come out, and I like this confluence of events.
If not for him going to the party, if not for him seeing Lena and the lava biting him at the same time, he wouldn’t go on this journey. It’s him being out of his comfort zone and Lena’s forwardness that allows him to let go.
These characters have an inner life and they don’t know how to communicate. The challenge was not having him talk for the first 20 minutes of the film. He’s not a verbal communicator and it’s only when it becomes about work that he slowly starts to get into it. You then realise how much is packed in there.
It’s a locked-in syndrome, where his emotional intelligence is zero, and you see him slowly go from the emotional development of a child, of not understanding social norms, to slowly developing that. It’s on the borderline of being a sociopath, in that respect.
Richard’s working on a programme to detect patterns in the stock market to produce reliable predictions. The news images of Obama and Trump on the television remind us of our recent history, and importantly that the failings of the Trump administration may have roots in previous Republican and Democrat presidencies. What was your thought process in including certain news footage?
I was thinking about the 24-hour news cycle, and this bombardment of information, of pundits, and the constant need for hot takes. How’s that educating and shaping us, or misshaping us?
I also thought of Richard as an algorithm, and the way these are built is that they’re constantly combing the internet and trying to respond. They want to be first, and they’re programmed in a way that if there’s a tsunami in the Middle East, or if a tanker crashes, it’s meant to immediately react and trade based on this knowledge.
Richard’s in the background consuming this data. The TV is on at all times and he’s interpreting, even if he’s not aware of it. He’s collecting information and those are all data sets.
We’re doing similar things, and as we’re constantly consuming from the internet and collecting all of this data, it’s shaping our reality. The period of the 2000s is still fairly new, and as that news cycle started to become so oppressive to me, that fed into Obama and Trump.
Mosquito State insinuates that institutions of capitalist society have a negative influence on our lives, using technology to generate greater wealth for the minority. It’s the recurring cycle of a lack of the distribution of wealth and opportunity.
When you talk about the space race, even as it is now, where’s the funding coming from, and how is it utilised? High-frequency trading is a gold rush. You’re talking about trading at nanoseconds.
When you think about the application of technology, the cost of digging tunnels or lines to try to have the best direct connection to a board of trade, so that your [information] comes a nanosecond before someone else’s, it’s because it’s going to affect the price on a fractional level. At such a volume, it becomes an arms race.
Is it the best use of capital? It’s all for gains, but those are the things that push technology. It’s perverse when you think about it.