A Shock to the System (1990)

*. I really hated this one.
*. Why? It’s a little movie that few people noticed at the time and that has since dropped almost completely out of sight. The theme was neither new nor interesting in 1990 and today seems even less so. What’s there to be upset about?
*. On the face of it, it’s a simple satire of the cutthroat world of business, where the law of the jungle prevails and psychopaths rule. Middle-aged, middle-management Graham Marshall (Michael Caine) seems ready to ascend to the next rung on the corporate ladder, before the job is unexpectedly given to a younger man. Mild-mannered and hen-pecked, an incident on the subway awakens Graham to the fact that it’s easy to kill someone and get away with it. What’s more, murder also infuses him with mojo. He becomes the alpha male: a real killer in the boardroom and the bedroom.
*. The troubling, even noxious thing is: where’s the satire? In the fact that Graham gets away with it? Is that part of the black comedy, or is the moral of the story that this really is the way the world works? The age differential between the leads is standard Hollywood (Caine was 56 and Elizabeth McGovern 28), but even so the way McGovern submits to Graham’s newly-acquired dominance (“his powers had been turned on to the point where no woman could resist him”) is hard to take. What is the message here? That her surrender is somehow wrong? Or rather that it’s natural?
*. In their At the Movies review of A Shock to the System both Siskel and Ebert spent most of their time praising Caine’s performance. I like Michael Caine, and think he’s a wonderfully versatile actor, but he’s badly miscast here. As a British Mad Man in the Big Apple he is out of place. He should be more of an American Everyman. Even the violence comes across as too dignified when delivered with his accent. A year later Bret Easton Ellis would write American Psycho and show how, in the New World, more really means more. You have to push  material like this to extremes.
*. The script needs to be livelier as well. Everything here just goes along the way you expect it to go, and it’s in no great rush to get there. The ending comes not as an ironic twist but simply as a way of underlining the depressing message.
*. Maybe it’s better off forgotten. To me it’s a pedestrian treatment of a hackneyed theme, and one that doesn’t work as any kind of critique of its subject at all. That is, if a critique was even intended.

2 thoughts on “A Shock to the System (1990)

  1. Tom Moody

    Have never seen or even heard of this! I was immediately thinking of American Psycho and you made that connection well, saying this type of story needs to be over the top to work.
    A good treatment of the theme is Donald Westlake’s book The Ax, which will never be filmed if we are lucky. A middle aged paper company executive is laid off work. He finds out who all the most qualified people are for a position with his skills, and sets about murdering them one by one. As you, the reader, are disliking him more and more, his family, who has no idea what’s going on, are noticing changes in his personality — his son sees a newfound confidence, and his wife is finding him increasingly… sexy. I say we’ll be lucky if it’s not filmed — it is exceedingly dark (albeit possibly dark-comic) and I’m not sure I could endure a film treatment done well.

    1. Alex Good Post author

      I should look for Westlake’s book. Of course, Ellis’s novel was a lot darker than the movie too.

      I think what really bugged me about this one was the way it played, straight, the whole myth of the alpha male. This is a label that I used to think of as a joke but now seems to be taken seriously by a lot of people. In so far as it has any validity (and I don’t think it has much) it refers to a poisonous type of personality. You can’t just say all CEOs and successful people who rise to the top are “alpha.” The guys I know who fit the type of the alpha male are all losers: alcoholics (or worse) who have been married four times and have trouble holding on to any job because everybody hates them. And the reason everybody hates them is because they’re jerks! Yet now they seem to have become the ultimate role model. This makes no sense to me.


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