Imagine The Truman Show, but more twisted. In Netflix’s The Push magician turned “psychological illusionist” Derren Brown hires a small army of actors, sets up a bunch of hidden cameras, and creates the most realistic fake corpse the world has ever seen, all to see if a man can be manipulated into murder in just one hour.
The premise is this: A bunch of people came to audition for Brown’s latest TV show. (He’s a thing in the U.K.) While at their audition, they were subject to tests that discovered how pliable they are to social pressure. From there, Chris, a young man with a growing business, was chosen. Chris is invited to be a part of a pivotal fundraiser for a new charity for children, called “Push.” (No, Brown is not above tacky jokes like this.) Once there, he will be introduced to one moral conflict after another, each intended to increase the social pressure, pushing him to the point of being susceptible to pushing a man off a rooftop.
Brown talks a good game about his purpose for the show, how he wants to encourage viewers to think about how they give over their agency and authorship of their own lives every day because of social pressure. But the show is definitely playing on exploitative thrills. Every few minutes, a card flashes with a countdown: 13 MINUTES UNTIL THE PUSH. In the meantime, we watch Chris go from a happy-go-lucky guy to a man dwindled by worry, regret, and panic. We’re encouraged through each sting of music and dramatic title card to stay tuned to witness a man commit (what he believes is) murder.
Spoilers for The Push
How do they try to convince Chris to push someone to their death? Bernie (yeah, like Weekend at Bernie’s) is the fictional charity’s most important donor. But ahead of its launch fundraiser, this wealthy old jerk seemingly croaks from a heart attack. The event’s host convinces Chris they must hide the body so as not to ruin the night. I mean, think of the children! They do. Next, the host convinces Chris he must let the audience think he is Bernie so the charity auction runs smoothly. Next, they must move the body, and yes, of course, they put sunglasses on him and have to convince some drunk dudes Bernie just partied too hard.
The big “twist” comes when Chris and the host discover Bernie was not dead. They find him on the roof, spitting threats and furious. He says he’ll ruin them and the charity. By now the charity’s board has been informed. As they huddle around Chris, furiously discussing their option, Bernie climbs to the edge of the roof, where he’s hooked to safety wires while Chris is distracted. The Board screams at Chris that this is his fault and he needs to fix it. They tell him he’ll go to jail for what he’s done, and if he just gives Bernie a “push” they’ll all say it was an accident, and they will all be saved. Meanwhile, a celebrity-stuffed promo video for the fake charity plays in the background on a giant screen above the building. So as they have this pivotal debate, famous people are saying one after another “Whatever it takes. Whatever it takes. Whatever it takes.” in the background.
Never forget Brown is a showman.
So does Chris give into all the social pressure and off Bernie? No. He walks away and is immediately informed this is a prank show. (Brown never dares to reference it as something so lowly, because he thinks this is science.) But then, another sickening twist comes. Chris was not the only person run through this maze of moral challenges. The Push cuts to a montage of three other people’s run through this scenario. And all three pushed Bernie off that ledge. They all look positively sick when they do it. But they all do it. Then Brown shows up to tell them they aren’t murderers and they shiver and laugh with relief. Then come some quick talking head interviews where each subject is chipper speaking positively about what they learned about themselves after discovering that they could be convinced to murder someone so easily. Each experiment took an hour. And three of the four of its subjects opted to kill someone because of social pressure from five people they just met. So that happy ending you thought Chris gave us is snatched away with a harrowing gut punch.
With a final speech direct to camera, Brown tries to spin this into a cautionary tale, warning the audience to consider how easily they could be led by social pressure. But it’s hard not to feel we too are being manipulated with the edit. I marveled that no one seemed angry with Brown after the reveal. Sure, all of them had signed up for his shenanigans back at the audition. But each was told they hadn’t been cast, so they believed everything happening was real. And yet all of them just seemed relieved to discover they hadn’t really killed someone, but three of them totally would have! There’s a little crying, but no full-on meltdowns. Which leads me to suspect that Brown chopped out the most traumatizing footage so that he doesn’t come off as a manipulative sadist. Or, that all of this—even the “real” people subjected to his ruse—is fake.