It’s overlong and demands a suspension of disbelief, but this relevant, timely, deeply cynical Polish thriller can’t help but be compelling.
The Hater arrives on Netflix today with a degree of notoriety that is partly earned and partly thanks to grim coincidence. The creative pedigree is pretty inarguable: the cynical thriller reunites provocative Polish director Jan Komasa with screenwriter Mateusz Pacewicz after their efforts on the Oscar-nominated Corpus Christi. It also won the Best International Narrative Feature jury prize at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, despite the festival being canceled, and works as both a spiritual and direct sequel to Komasa’s similarly-themed 2011 effort Suicide Room.
These are all compelling reasons for any attention surrounding The Hater, but the most striking is probably its plot’s chilling similarity to a real-life tragedy in Komasa’s native Poland that resulted in the film’s streaming debut being delayed. The on-stage assassination of liberal Gda?sk mayor Pawe? Adamowicz by a right-wing troll neatly mirrors The Hater’s story of Tomasz (Maciej Musia?owski), a sociopathic twentysomething manipulator who sets his sights on a homosexual politician also, entirely coincidentally, named Pawe?.
You can see why this was a bit awkward. But you can also see why it gives The Hater a deeply uncomfortable relevance in its exploration of how always-online culture essentially provides lonely dorks with a skeleton key for every closet in the world, including the one that popular mayoral candidate Pawe? Rudnicki (Maciej Stuhr) is hiding in. In its rigorous unpacking of Tomasz’s psychology and the dovetailing personal and professional justifications he finds for going after his target, The Hater excels; in its depiction of his schemes it falters, with several instances of impromptu orchestration that strain credibility almost to breaking point.
Tomasz makes for a mundane villain, as pitiable in his pathetic desperation as he is distressingly plausible in his mundanity. He’s expelled from law school for plagiarism and falls in with a cutthroat firm stewarded by Beata (Agata Kulesza) which provides anonymous online disinformation; in his first assignment he concocts smears to put an online health guru out of business, and in his next, he’s tasked with characterizing Rudnicki as a milksop lefty whose policies will result in the mass Islamization and subsequent ruination of Poland. It’s a big task, but Tomasz is more than up for it since he’s besotted by his childhood friend Gabi (Vanessa Aleksander), whose well-to-do left-wing parents Robert (Jacek Koman) and Zofia (Agata Kulesza) are among Rudnicki’s benefactors.
Tomasz’s professional role as a blank-faced and ice-cold sociopathic strategist contrasts neatly with his damp-eyed personal obsession; it makes the point that while the young man’s calculated manipulation is on some level innate, it’s also a response to a desperate longing for connection that he, thanks to his status, his personality, and other factors besides, can’t build organically. The Hater’s strongest point is that the internet gives people like this a means by which they can disingenuously forge that connection through deceit, or strip it away from others by exploitation; the best moments are when the virtual world blends with the real one to tally up the personal cost of Tomasz’s impersonal meddling.
The film’s worst moments, conversely, are when it prioritizes cause over effect, delighting in Tomasz’s adroit orchestration in ways that increasingly defy logic and reason and sometimes oversimplify the point they’re making to the extent that they fail to make any point at all. Tomasz ingratiates himself with Rudnicki’s political team, seduces him, and drugs him; he recruits white nationalist Stefan “Guzek” Guzkowski (Adam Gradowski) through an MMORPG – because where else would nutcase zealots be hanging out? – and he stirs up animosity between a White Power protest and a pro-Rudnicki political march that he finagles into occurring on the same day within blocks of each other. Not all of these things occur in quite the way Tomasz expects, and not all of them even seem to contribute that much to his overall scheme or particularly hinder Rudnicki’s political campaign either. A film that’s already overlong could have done with trimming the fat here.
It doesn’t help that The Hater isn’t just a character study, but a wide-ranging critique of contemporary culture in general. It wants to characterize Tomasz as a nutcase extremist and show how neatly he fits into an online ecosystem designed in many ways to embolden people like him, but it also wants to show how Tomasz himself is manipulated by opportunistic corporate vultures, how his lack of empathy is weaponized against democracy in pursuit of profit. This requires liberal hypocrisy and conservative aggression; rabid fanaticism and increasingly uncivil discourse. Nobody emerges from The Hater looking favorable, and it exemplifies a toxic culture of hatred and ideological schism. But in taking aim at so many targets, it’s often forced to resort to heavy-handed storytelling choices to make the point as quickly and clearly as possible.
All this aside, The Hater, despite being overlong, unsubtle, and frequently farfetched, is also emblematic of our divided times in a way that can’t help but resonate. It’s a compelling and deeply cynical thriller about the worst aspects of our nature and culture, how they rise to the top on the so-called advances of our technology, and how as more people are given a voice to speak with fewer than ever seem inclined to listen.