The Recycling Man: a peep at a future police-state dystopia and its manipulation of vulnerable citizens

Carlo Ballauri, “The Recycling Man” (2020)

A very surprising little short, “The Recycling Man” takes place in a future dystopian police state in which children are disappearing and the authorities issue warnings and solicit information from concerned citizens with offers of rewards. In an overcrowded and impoverished tenement, Jacob (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth), a wheelchair-bound boy, befriends Sarah (Valentina Filippeschi), a girl also living in the neighbourhood slum, by exchanging messages written on signboards. One day, Jacob is signing to Sarah in the tenement public space from his apartment window, when a man suddenly walks by and attacks her. Having apparently killed Sarah, the man stuffs her body into a bag and slings the bag into the boot of his van. While he drives off, Jacob frantically begs his mother Valerie (Virginia Newcomb) to call the police and report the murder. Valerie phones the authorities and gives them co-ordinates of the neighbourhood area to search.

At first this film plays like a dystopian version of the famous Alfred Hitchcock film “Rear Window”, set perhaps in a Blade Runner / District 9 world – until the man who has killed Sarah turns up at Valerie and Jacob’s apartment. The man, Doyle (Terence Anderson), attacks Jacob as well – and pulls the operating programme out of the boy’s neck. It turns out that Jacob, like Sarah, has been a robot all along, and moreover a gradually malfunctioning robot past its use-by date which explains why Jacob has been sitting in a wheelchair for so long. Meanwhile the cops make their way through the tenement neighbourhood to find the young pregnant woman Maria (Ines Milans) whom Valerie reported to the police for breaking the law on becoming pregnant without permission from the authorities.

In this society where overpopulation is deemed to be the major social and economic problem, the government is zealously pursuing a depopulation agenda by making pregnancy a crime. Those citizens wanting children must make do with robots that look like children. However the robots don’t last indefinitely and eventually must be taken away and recycled by collectors like Doyle.

The pace of the action is so quick and smooth, yet the different sub-plots fit so well and logically in this tight story, that the result gives the impression of a society rigidly controlled by a digital police-state technocracy. Though we are not given a back story to Valerie and Jacob, the plot itself reveals enough that we can infer why Valerie snitches on Maria, who trusted Valerie, to grab the financial reward that will allow her to replace Jacob with a new model. As to what Valerie does for work and how she ended up in the slum neighbourhood, living on her own, that is a story that will have to wait for another short film. “The Recycling Man” is a complete and self-contained story about a particular post-collapse dystopian society that does not need to explain its apparent contradictions. The focus is on how individuals without much power or influence try to survive and fulfil their needs and yearning for connection in a brutal totalitarian society – but end up being forced to compromise by betraying other people. The result is more loneliness and isolation, leading perhaps to drug addiction – and becoming more vulnerable to government manipulation.