As the old saying goes, we currently live in interesting times. Every single day a fresh hell is unleashed upon us, while we get to sit back and watch the world crumble around us. There are some obvious causes for that, and some more subtle ones, but it’s pretty undeniable that things aren’t going especially well at the moment. And that frustration, anger, and confusion has really been permeating the world of pop culture. This year has given us a slew of art that seems made by and for people who are full of rage at the state of the world. The best films we’ve gotten so far this year have almost all been furious screeds against the state of the world, tackling the hopelessness of life, the state of politics, the declination of the environment, and the struggles of America’s class system. So, as if one cue, we’ve been given an utterly fascinating film that ultimately exists as a blistering condemnation of the American economy and capitalism in general. The debut film from rapper and political activist Boots Riley, Sorry to Bother You is a film that I’ve been anticipating for quite some time. Ever since it started to tear up the festival scene earlier this year it’s gained quite a reputation as one of the most inventive, strange, and angriest films of the year. It’s been considered a shoe-in as one of the best films of the year, and the introduction of a powerful new voice in the world of satiric film. And, other than some slight issues with a tonal shift near the end of the film, I have to agree.
Sorry to Bother You follows a man named Cassius “Cash” Green. Cash is living his life in a pseudo-dystopic Oakland, trying to form a life with his fiance Detroit, and getting into the telemarketing game at a company called RegalView. Cash initially hates this new job, unable to connect with the people he’s calling, and generally despising the culture that RegalView fosters. That is until he takes some advice from a veteran telemarketer who tells him that the key to success is perfecting his “white voice,” a special voice that will put the white customers at ease and trick them into buying things from him. And, surprisingly, Cash turns out to be quite adept at this. He quickly establishes himself as one of the most lucrative telemarketers at RegalView, earning quite a bit of money and esteem from the company. And, with this newfound cache, he decides to help the rest of the employees in their quest to form a union that will actually provide a decent living to the telemarketers, all being led by a fellow employee who calls himself Squeeze. The fledgling union ends up staging a full-scale disruption of the call-floor, grinding the business to a halt. But, while the management of RegalView are dealing with the other telemarketers, they inform Cash that he’s being promoted to a “Power Caller,” a prestigious position in the company that will let him sell things for a monolithic and oppressive corporation called WorryFree. And, needing the money, Cash sells out his friends and takes the job, leaving them behind just as their union finds itself striking.
Cash then begins working on behalf of WorryFree, a company that is essentially selling slave labor. They give people life-time work contracts, have them live in the factories that they’re working in, and generally robbing them of their humanity. But, it turns out that Cash is quite good at selling slave labor, and he continues to rise in the ranks of RegalView, much to the chagrin of Detroit and Squeeze. Cash continues to cross the picket line to work, in the process becoming a bit of a viral sensation after getting a soda can to the head, and loses the friendship of Squeeze and the other workers, and ends up losing Detroit after it become clear that he’s working for the evil WorryFree. But, he’s making a lot of money, and is able to justify it all, even agreeing to go to a lavish party at the home of WorryFree founder Steve Lift. It’s an incredibly debaucherous and demeaning experience, and at the end of the night Cash is invited to a private meeting with Lift. Which is where things get really strange. And, if you’re interested in seeing this film as blindly as possible, maybe go see it before learning about the plot beyond this moment.
It turns out that WorryFree has genetically engineered a new race of human beings, combining human and horse DNA to create a race of strong, dumb, and obedient workers to exploit. They’re ready to reveal their creation to the world, but want to offer Cash the chance to become an important figure in the new equisapien culture. But, Cash is revolted by the whole idea, and flees back to Detroit, hoping that she’ll know what to do. And, luckily, Cash ended up accidentally sending her a video of the equisapiens, giving them the proof that they need. Cash then uses his accidental viral fame to get the footage to the people, who largely don’t care. WorryFree keeps on developing the equisapiens, and Cash is at a loss on how to make people care. So, he throws himself back into working on the RegalView union, starting a massive riot that takes over the city and frees the equisapiens. He then decides to let things return to normal, living a life with Detroit and working as a regular telemarketer at RegalView, until finding himself turning into an equisapien himself.
I feel like at this point it’s a little trite to say a movie is “unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.” But, in this film’s case, that’s literally true. It’s being compared to avant garde works of satire like Putney Swope, but those comparisons don’t do this film justice. I’ve never seen a movie this strange, manic, and overtly progressive. Boots Riley made an unflinching film that appears to be exactly what he wanted to make. There doesn’t seem to be any compromise in this film, a truly personal work of art. It’s beautifully shot, gorgeously designed, and full of a snappy and manic editing style that keeps you guessing at all times. And it’s all bolstered by a litany of terrific performances. Lakeith Stanfield obviously has the most to do as Cash, giving us a believably beleaguered man in a world gone mad, seduced by the allure of money and power at the cost of his own soul, and he’s amazing in the film. Tessa Thompson continues to become my favorite living actress, filling Detroit with an anarchic glee and ironclad set of morals that help steer the film through the ethical maelstrom that it becomes. Armie Hammer is wonderfully unhinged as Steve Lift, proving once again that he’s best suited to playing absolute dirtbags. Its also impossible not to give credit to the hilarious voice-work being done by David Cross and Patton Oswalt, completely selling the whole idea of the “white voices,” which end up becoming one of the most consistently hilarious parts of the film.
Really, my only reservations about the entire film revolve around the “twist.” I understand the point of the equisapiens, and the metaphor of a corporation seeing human labor as little more than chattel literally turning people into beasts of burden, but it’s just a bit too much of a tonal shift. The film had been heightened and strange up until that point, but it had been taking place in something approximating reality. By introducing strange horse-men and having Cash lead a horse-man rebellion kind of came out of left field, and I struggled to keep up with the movie after that. The first two thirds of the movie were some of the finest satire I’ve ever seen, and the equisapien stuff just kind of left me a little cold. But, that’s just me. And, honestly, it doesn’t take away from the fact that the first two-thirds are a masterpiece. It stumbled a bit for me, but it’s still one of the most interesting films I’ve ever seen.
And I think the thing that keeps me loving the film despite that one reservation is the fact that it’s so uncompromising in it’s vision. Boots Riley has not been discreet in his politics, and this film stands as a mission statement, a bold proclamation of how he sees the world. And it’s hard to argue with him. Capitalism is an exploitative and doomed institution, built on human suffering. It’s not a flaw, it’s a feature. We live in a world where the stock market is doing better than it’s ever done before, while average people are worse off than they’ve ever been. The country is being looted by dishonest robber-barons, and nobody seems to be willing to stand up for what’s right. Talking about the economy, income inequality, and the importance of unionized labor aren’t exactly sexy topics. They’re massively important, but they require a lot of thought. They involve numbers, math, and the desire to actually change things. And that puts people off. It’s usually left to people to lecture and harangue about on Twitter, and it’s often an unpleasant conversation. But this film seemed to strive to make an entertaining, thought-provoking, and relateable story that also tackled these ideas. And I love the film for that. It’s not afraid to look at the flaws of capitalism, and urge the viewers to do something about it. It gets a little lost in the horses of it all, but this is a film that has a lot on its mind, and expresses it more eloquently than I think I’ve ever heard it expressed before.
Sorry to Bother You was written and directed by Boots Riley and released by Annapurna Pictures, 2018.
Categories: Reel Talk