Film Review – The Hater
Tomasz (Maciej Musialowski) is an enigma. On the outside he seems like a polite and well-adjusted young man. He dresses in a buttoned-up shirt, tie, vest, and overcoat. At dinner parties he’ll bring a gift and will ask about people in a way that doesn’t sound like throwaway chit chat. But beneath that gentlemanly façade lies sinister motivations. Tomasz falls in line with other movie anti-heroes, ones who mask themselves in normalcy but are anything but. He would feel right at home hanging out with the likes of Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver (1976), Patrick Bateman from American Psycho (2000), or Louis Bloom from Nightcrawler (2014).
The Polish film The Hater (2020) follows Tomasz as he descends into a darker state of mind. One of the tricky things about anti-heroes is that they need to be interesting enough for an audience to stay invested in their story. The film (written by Mateusz Pacewicz, directed by Jan Komasa) seems to be on the fence regarding its central character’s lack of morality. This works both as its biggest strength and greatest weakness. Is Tomasz a product of his environment? Or is he an outlier, whose sole purpose is to create chaos within the established order?
The narrative is vague about this. When we first meet Tomasz, he is being expelled from school for plagiarism. Is he being kicked out because he lacks the intellectual capability to succeed, or is it because he has no interest in following the rules? That question is never answered. Soon after, Tomasz visits the Krasuckas – old family friends whose daughter Gabi (Vanessa Aleksander) Tomasz has grown an attraction for. The dinner is pleasant enough, but we soon discover that after he left Tomasz left his phone in the house, set up so that he can listen in on the family’s private conversations.
While the writing and directing doesn’t specify the motivations beyond Tomasz’s actions, there is a clear message regarding his use of the internet and social media. Hired by a PR company that specializes in running smear campaigns, Tomasz develops a skill for creating a negative perception of other people through online harassment and misinformation. Through Facebook, YouTube, chat rooms, and other forms of digital platforms, Tomasz finds relative ease in stoking mob mentality through hate speech – catering to racist, misogynistic, and homophobic ideals. His targets range from health gurus all the way up to political figures.
This is where The Hater operates the best. Not only does it detail how quickly bad information can be transmitted like a disease, but how timely the message is. Recently, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg faced questions from Congress regarding his company allowing political advertisements to run with misinformation without efficient fact checking. In a time where convenience takes precedence over accuracy, the capacity for rumors and falsehoods to be embraced by the public as truth run dangerously high. Tomasz understands this and exploits it for his own means.
In terms of tone, Komasa constructs the film with a sleek, detached approach. Many scenes feature Tomasz looking at a screen, which is not always the most cinematically interesting to watch. There are moments where he delves into aspects of online culture that doesn’t quite fit in – like trying to communicate with another person anonymously under the guise of a video game avatar. But for the most part the scenes work. We can follow how Tomasz uses the internet to spy on others, gather intel, and then use it to garner a negative outlook on those people. The way he can bully and intimidate others from a keyboard shows not only how disturbed he is, but how the internet is a social wild west where people can get away with just about anything.
My hunch is that many viewers will get turned off by The Hater simply because of how difficult Tomasz is as a character. The writing doesn’t allow us much opportunity to develop empathy for him. We don’t get much of his background – how we perceive him is based almost solely on the decisions he makes within the plot. On one hand, I appreciate Pacewicz and Komasa for refusing to give Tomasz enough humanity for us to root for him. Musialowski provides a very good performance as Tomasz. With a cold stare and red bags around his eyes, Musialowski makes Tomasz appear as though he hasn’t had a good night’s sleep in a long time. He also gives him the laser focus needed to achieve his goals, despite them being predicated on jealousy, spite, and hate.
Yet, the ambiguity with Tomasz is a hard obstacle to overcome. At nearly two and half hours, the film is asking us to spend a significant amount of time with a person who exhibits nothing more than sociopathic (maybe even psychopathic) behavior. Did the internet help breed Tomasz, or is he his own creation lashing out against a millennial generation? While the style is admirable and the ideas relevant to our present day, the lack of perspective for its central character prevents it from being great.