What would Tom Ripley get up to in 2020?
That question ran through my head multiple times while watching Jan Komasa’s latest film, starring Maciej Musialowski as a conniving social climber also named Tom — or rather, Tomasz. But in the end, The Hater‘s central sociopath sinks to lows even the amoral Ripley would steer clear of. He outdoes Travis Bickle, the silver screen’s incel prince, too. And yet you don’t have look far to find a real-world analog for his brand of evil. You could pick up your phone right now, and find it on Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube. For Tomasz is a troll, stirring up right-wing xenophobia mostly for his own amusement, with increasingly deadly results. In 1976, Travis Bickle’s only option to create havoc was to pick up a gun. In 2020, Tomasz can do just as much damage by picking up his phone.
The Hater begins like a modern day Patricia Highsmith thriller, as an ambitious outcast insinuates himself into the lives of the wealthy and well-connected, who never suspect the machinations he’s orchestrated to put himself there. But as Tomasz sets his sights on taking down a liberal politician, The Hater becomes more like a modern-day Taxi Driver. Paul Schrader’s First Reformed — one of 2018’s best films — already gave us a spiritual sequel to Scorsese’s misanthropic masterpiece, telling the story of an unhinged priest who becomes radicalized against corporate corruption and environmental waste. Of course, Ethan Hawke’s Reverend Toller was a very different outcast from Robert De Niro’s iconic Travis Bickle — the sort of guy you would invite over for Sunday dinner, though he’s arguably even more dangerous. The Hater provides another modern twist on the Taxi Driver formula, imagining what might happen if Tom Ripley decided to take a Travis Bickle type under his wing, and use him for the most nefarious purposes imaginable. And even that doesn’t quite convey the level of evil ultimately on display here.
The Hater is also a timely tale of the way social media can be — and very much has been — weaponized. It borrows Tom Ripley’s chameleonic, upwardly mobile malice and Travis Bickle’s politicized rage, pairing them with The Social Network‘s cutthroat genius vision of Mark Zuckerberg. If you can imagine all that seething sociopathy rolled into one movie, you can imagine Jan Komasa’s bleak, pitch black drama The Hater, which unfortunately feels less like a thriller than a documentary these days. Tomasz is the kind of twisted villain that can only exist in the movies, skating out of trouble with relative ease, but the actions he takes are happening all over the world, all day, every day, and the consequences are as dire and destructive in the real world as they are in this film.
Tomasz is a professional “hater,” paid to troll and otherwise create digital mayhem for his clients’ competition. His callous boss, Beata (Agata Kulesza), takes him under her wing, instantly recognizing a cold-bloodedness in him she can put to work — without quite realizing what a monster she’s nurturing. Tomasz is infatuated with Gabi (Vanessa Aleksander), daughter of family friends he’s already manipulating. But when he reveals his duplicity in a rare candid moment, she ghosts him, and a ruinous chain of events is set into motion. Tomasz’s personal and professional lives dovetail nicely when he is tasked with digging up dirt on Pawel Rudnicki (Maciej Stuhr), a mayoral candidate whose platform opposes the wave of Islamophobia that’s running rampant through Europe. There’s not much actual dirt to dig up on Rudnicki, but that’s okay — who needs facts when you can just completely falsify them? Tomasz stirs up a right-wing white nationalist backlash with ease — because if recent years have taught us anything, it’s that that is all too easy to do — and soon finds his Travis Bickle in gun-toting gamer Stefan (Adam Gradowski), who is just as angry and unloved as Tomasz himself is, but not half as smart. Like most trolls, Stefan never suspects that his bigotry is being exploited for some fat cat’s gain — or that he’ll be the ultimate loser in this exchange. He is played, exactly as expected — and all through digital exchanges (depicted, somewhat satirically, through a fantasy role-playing game).
What ultimately fascinates in The Hater is the opacity of our antihero. When we meet him, he’s being expelled from law school for plagiarism — it’s immediately clear that whatever path toward redemption Tomasz might have taken in the past is no longer available when this story starts. He’s already bad — the suspense lies in just how much worse he’s going to get before the film ends. On the one hand, Tomasz seems driven toward revenge on Gabi and her family for spurning him — but then seems just as much motivated by Beata’s prodding and professional success. As Tomasz enlists as an intern saboteur for the Rudnicki campaign, his spewing of left-wing talking points is as convincing as his right-wing fury. Tomasz most likely has no political opinions at all — it’s the anger that attracts him to doing the ultra-conservative’s dirty work, the vitriol itself. Tomasz loves rattling off the most vile, gratuitous rhetoric imaginable, whether or not he believes any of it.
And perhaps Stefan does, too. What unites these angry young men is not the cause itself, which ultimately bears little or no consequence on their daily lives, but the shared rage at a class of people who is smarter, richer, and happier than they could ever hope to be. We never learn exactly what Tomasz’s backstory is, but he has one foot in the elite world — which is what makes him so good at dismantling it. Yet he’s not truly accepted there, which sends him to find solace amongst the poorer, less educated conservatives, united against a common enemy they don’t really know or understand. Tomasz’s diabolic reaction to rejection is a very cinematic one, the kind we’ve seen many times — in Taxi Driver, in The Talented Mr. Ripley, in The Social Network, and so on — but it mirrors the motivations of real misanthropes in becoming radicalized, in becoming the supposed “lone wolves” who end up splashed across the news after another terrorist tragedy. Real political violence may not be quite as coolly calculated as The Hater fantasizes it might be, but there’s no question that bigotry is being weaponized on social media the way it is here — and certain populists love it, stoke it, feed off it.
In 2020, when Travis Bickle asks his mirror, “You talkin’ to me?”, the mirror answers — because it’s connected to thousands of other angry dummies just like him. Now imagine what happens when you get dozens of Travis Bickles in a (virtual) room together. Or better yet, just look at Twitter. Jan Komasa’s had quite a year, with his compelling ex-con drama Corpus Christi nominated for a Best International Feature Oscar, and The Hater coming to Netflix as a pseudo-sequel to 2011’s Suicide Room. The Hater is a painfully current psychological thriller, too real to offer much in the way of escapism in these excruciating times. It’s hard to stomach, but its depiction of the internet as an utterly amoral, anything-goes Wild West is, perhaps, the most accurate cinematic document of our digital age to date. The denouement of The Hater is repugnant and merciless, but it’s also very 2020, in that baseless mayhem and hateful lunacy rule the day.
It’s better to be a fake somebody than a real nobody, Tom Ripley tells us. And it’s all so much easier on social media.