“The true empire is the invisible one.”

As much as we may like to think we’re in control, it’s hard to deny that there are some powers simply beyond us. That’s why conspiracies are increasingly, and controversially, popular – with people desperate to uncover the real governing factors in our lives, even when such ‘revelations’ don’t exist. In steps Externo, an Argentinian one-man drama charting a mysterious but power-hungry figure’s journey from relative nobody to silent world superpower. While the trajectory to global influence may be hard to take at face value, the messages and meaning behind it are undeniably interesting.

Co-director Leandro Taub stars as Joseph, a nobody who one day decides that, with $2,000 to his name, he’s going to show everyone just how easily one can take power. He starts off slow, buying and selling paltry goods, before gradually increasing to owning companies and manufacturing artificial demand for his wares. The majority of Externo comprises of vignettes ordered into chapters, each showing a different way in which Joseph exerts his power. From digging up dirt on politicians to get in their good books to creating a virus just to sell the antidote, Joseph is an increasingly immoral and egotistical man – but as those negative attributes snowball, so does his power.

It’s a film very much focused on visual storytelling, almost feeling like performative art in times instead of a straight-laced film. Images of news reports or hushed phone calls are projected onto the brick backgrounds in which Joseph wanders, almost entirely alone as he talks among his faceless cronies to continue spreading his web of influence. At times that’s quite unsettling, seeing just how desperate our protagonist is to prove his point: to the extent that he’ll extort, kill, and manipulate.

It’s a shame, then, that Externo never really invites us to get to know Joseph as a character. We learn nothing about his life before this power-hungry pact, or even his motivations and reasoning for doing so. One thing the film makes clear is that he’s an egotist, wanting all the power for himself, but without any proper development he becomes little more than a caricature. There’s hints of depth in his brief relationship with She (Elisabeth Ehrlich), who wrangles with his ideology of whether he’s actually capable of caring for anyone but himself, but that’s never quite explored enough.

In fact, that’s most of the problem with Externo as a whole: a lack of connective tissue to make this feel more cogent. It takes its subject matter very seriously, with clear influences from The Wolf of Wall Street in charting one man’s rise to power – but the key difference in Scorsese’s DiCaprio vehicle is that we get to know who Jordan Belfort is without all his success.

However, that’s not to say that Externo isn’t a stimulating watch. In fact, it’s undeniably brimming with directorial flair. Leandro Taub and his brother Jonathan have a very unique filmmaking voice, with direct messaging to the viewer to create the unsettling belief that perhaps Externo‘s events aren’t too far-fetched. It’s also consistently engaging, with a really impressive one-man performance that binds the disparate developments together in places where the screenplay fails to.

As such, Externo is worth watching, if anything because you certainly won’t have seen anything quite like it before. The way it tells Joseph’s story isn’t always the most gratifying, but the ideas and execution mean you’re never bored and always slightly unsettled. You may not buy into all of its arguments or plot developments, but it’s hard to deny that Externo wants to challenge its viewers in a way not many films do.

★★½