The Consultant, a 2023 dark comedy-thriller created by Tony Basgallop based on the book of the same name by Bentley Little, gets off to a strong start and keeps that pace going.
Elaine (Brittany O’Grady) and Craig (Nat Wolff) have their world turned upside down when a child on a school trip kills their boss, Sang (Brian Yoon). Still processing the shock, Elaine and Craig realise the horrific violence they’ve witnessed is not even the strangest thing to happen to them that week when Regus Patoff (Christoph Waltz) arrives and takes over the company.
He describes himself as a consultant, hired to assist Mr Sang in ‘all matters of business’, and he is not deterred in the slightest to find out the man who hired him met a gruesome fate. His behaviour is unnerving to begin with, but the more Elaine and Craig find out about Patoff and the companies who sign with him, the more they find themselves working to keep their lives and their moral centres intact for the duration of Patoff’s contract.
The Consultant portrays a heightened reality, and it has to, otherwise it would be tragically, unwatchably familiar. Patoff demanding that all remote workers reach the office within an hour or be fired is no doubt familiar to employees of Twitter who scrambled to rearrange their lives when new CEO Elon Musk ended their work-from-home arrangements.
When Craig says he’s ‘taking some time’ rather than looking for a new job right away, Elaine tells him ‘don’t take too long, it’s cold out there’. Sure, they’re recovering from the shock of witnessing a gruesome murder, but any time they take to recover from their grief and trauma creates a gap in their resume that might leave them unemployable as they look for work in a competitive industry and high cost-of-living city.
Craig considers quitting in response to Patoff’s management style, but the news of another studio going bankrupt reminds him how precarious his position is.
Here in the real world, barely even two full months into 2023, a staggering number of companies announced plans to downsize.
Disney CEO Bob Iger announced planned sequels to Frozen and Toy Story as well as 7000 layoffs, while tech giant Microsoft are about to become 10,000 employees less giant. Google’s parent company, Alphabet, announced they were cutting their workforce by 12,000, only to be outdone by Amazon, who announced plans to leave 18,000 people unemployed. Even Zoom, a company whose product proved indispensable during the pandemic, is downsizing its workforce by 15%, leaving 1300 employees looking for work.
Christoph Waltz gives, unsurprisingly, a riveting performance as Patoff, making the character as larger-than-life as he needs to be but anchoring the performance with delightful little touches: the way he seems unsure of how to move his arms when comforting a grieving mother, the flash of sincere hurt on his face when someone implies he is ‘the devil’, the way he seems genuinely delighted by the idea of pedal boats shaped like swans.
Nat Wolff as Craig and Brittany O’Grady as Elaine hold their own opposite Waltz, as characters trying to keep their heads above water while Patoff demands the world from them. Craig, a coder and games designer, alternates believably between excitedly solving a mystery and spiralling into despair.
Elaine, Mr Sang’s assistant, or ‘creative liaison’ since giving herself a title upgrade, attempts to roll with whatever Patoff can throw at her, but wonders where it will lead her. Each actor portrays such a believable vulnerability in their performance that no matter what their characters do there’s no question about why they do it.
Ultimately what’s most sinister about Patoff is how effective he is at his job. The Contractor pulls no punches in dramatising the gulf between ‘good person’ and ‘effective businessman’, or in showing that, disgusting as Patoff’s behaviour is, he has a kind of rancid allure. Some employees quit in protest, but they’re in the minority.
For most, witnessing his behaviour, or being the target of his ire makes people no less desperate to impress him, because he gets results. He promises to turn companies around and he makes good on that promise. Elaine and Craig look into a Russian company he contracted with, one that sold prosthetic limbs. Patoff did what he promised he would do, increasing sales and revenue for the company. He couldn’t have had anything to do with the fact that amputations in Russia almost doubled in that time, could he? And certainly not with the gruesome death of that company’s CEO? Right?
As much as I’ve talked about Regus Patoff, what makes The Consultant so riveting is the world around him.
Patoff is a threat, yes, and he seems to come out of nowhere, but he is a product of a world that made him necessary. He knows nothing about video games when he takes over CompWare, but to him all products are the same. He says his job is ‘to observe, to streamline, to improve,’ and what the series never lets you forget is that the easiest way to ‘streamline’ is to leave a lot of people unemployed. That to ‘improve’ means making people act less like people and more like business assets.
As artfully constructed and nail-biting as some scenes are, the scariest thing about The Consultant is that those who endure his methods, and worse, those who begin to emulate them, will be successful. They might even think that what he did was worth it.
The Consultant is streaming now on Amazon Prime Australia.