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Non-Review Review: The Day Shall Come

The Day Shall Come is an ambitious piece of work that suffers from some very fundamental flaws.

Chris Morris’ long-awaited follow-up to Four Lions treads on relatively familiar ground. The narrative unfolds along two threads in parallel. The first of these focuses on Moses Al Shabazz and the Church of the Star of Six, a vaguely radical (but completely non-violent) religious organisation built around addressing historical injustice and using psychic powers to bring down construction cranes over Miami. The other narrative thread is build around the bureaucratic machinations of local law enforcement, desperate to justify the bulking up of their budget after the attacks on the World Trade Centre.

My ami.

Separately, these elements feel like they should work well enough for Morris. The opening credits promise that the film is “inspired by one hundred true stories” and the set-up is absurdist enough that it feels entirely believable. Morris’ knack has always been in articulating the heightened and surreal aspects of the modern world while grounding them in mundanity, so that even the most outlandish of concepts feels anchored in a world that is recognisable and convincing. Like all great satirists, Morris holds a mirror up to the world that he sees and produces a caricature that feels as true as an naturalist portrayal.

However, The Day Shall Come just doesn’t work. A lot of this is tonal, with one of the film’s two central story lines occasionally veering into trite sentimentality that feels completely at odds with the rest of the film and which plays as an attempt to soften Morris’ more conventional and abrasive style. The result is a film that has a few compelling elements and solid (if bleak) gags, but which often feels unjustly worried about how its audience will respond and so sands down its rough edges to make something more palatable. The problem is that the rough edges are by far the most interesting parts.

He can preach until he’s horse.

Of the two central threads, the office politics plot focusing on the internal workings of the FBI office in Florida is the most compelling. Of course, there’s a sense of tired familiarity to the set-up. The FBI received a large influx of counter-terrorism related funding in the wake of the attack on the World Trade Centre, and so the agents working at the organisation felt compelled to justify that investment by manipulating their figures. This is not a new idea by any measure. The Sopranos grappled with this organisational shift within the Bureau more than fifteen years ago. The Day Shall Come is hardly breaking new ground.

More than that, there is a sense in these scenes that Morris is retreading old ground in terms of style and content. The office scenes are shot with the shaky handheld camera work that has been visual shorthand for “these people have no idea what they’re actually doing” since at least The Office. The plotting, scheming and ass-covering within the FBI arguably feels very much like a knock-off of the style of cringe office comedy perfected by Armando Iannucci with The Thick of It and In the Loop, imported to America with Veep. (Morris has experience here, having directed several episodes of Veep.)

Not somebody you want to cross(bow)…

Indeed, even the use of the War on Terror as a motivating factor in terms of plotting feels curiously out of date, although perhaps that is the point. The Day Shall Come might have felt more timely and relevant had there not been a gap of decade between it and Four Lions. However, there is something to be said for the film’s portrayal of an intelligence apparatus that is still defined by a trauma almost two decades old. It is entirely probable that the FBI still believes itself to be fighting the War on Terror, even after the Great Recession and anxieties over immigration. However, The Day Shall Come itself seems oblivious to this.

Still, despite these issues, the segments focusing on the FBI largely work. Office politics are a reliable source of relatable comedy, and there is always an engaging juxtaposition of the pathetic scheming and ass-covering of any suitably large bureaucracy with the stakes of a counter-terrorism task force. The bulk of the so-black-its-bleak comedy in The Day Shall Come arises from the contrast between the awkward self-interest of its middle-management federal agents and the actual consequences of their ineptitude. The depths of their cynicism add a rough edge to their awkward jockeying for position.

“I give you the FBI…”

It helps that the cast is largely talented and engaging. Anna Kendrick is a gifted comedic presence, and a solid emotional pivot point for a story like this; she is capable of transitioning in the space of a few seconds from a relatable audience surrogate to a nu erotic mess, which is a useful skill in the context of a constantly-escalating satire. Building off his appearance in The Goldfinch, Denis O’Hare proves himself reliable in a rather thankless role as the agent overseeing the circus, bouncing between casual (and extreme) racism and desperate damage control.

However, the real problems in The Day Shall Come arise when this subplot is juxtaposed with the story of Moses Al Shabazz. Marchánt Davis is good in the role, but The Day Shall Come tries to have its cake and eat it with Moses. It tries to treat the character as both a punchline and an emotional pivot. In early scenes, Moses’ belief system is treated as a source of ridicule, with the film taking great pleasure in the absurdity of a religious belief system build around “Black Santa” and imparted by a talking duck. (One montage includes the four members of the church practicing their “duck walk.”)

On his high horse.

Over the course of the film, Moses finds himself targeted by the FBI and groomed as a terrorist. The idea is that bureau can justify its counter-terrorist funding by arresting would-be domestic terrorists, and so eagerly entraps a bunch of useful idiots by trying to get them to buy weapons or detonate bombs so that they can be arrested for buying weapons or detonating bombs. In the eyes of the FBI, Moses is a useful idiot. He can be “walked across the line” so that he can be arrested, while law enforcement takes credit for having halted a potential terrorist strike on American soil.

It is possible for a story like this to treat Moses as a source of broad comedy while respecting his basic human dignity, to underscore that Moses is a man of absurd convictions but also worthy of respect. There have been many great films built around similarly cartoonish and eccentric protagonists, striking that precarious balance. The problem with The Day Shall Come is that it doesn’t trust its audience or itself, and so veers too dramatically and too wildly into overt sentimentality in order to land its fairly self-evident point about Moses’ inherent decency and a system that would so brutally exploit it.

All power to all the people.

The Day Shall Come stumbles whenever it tries to convince the audience that Moses is fundamentally a good person. The movie overplays its hand and stumbles into trite sentimentality. Moses is a fundamentally good guy who happens to be going through a familial separation as all of this is happening, the movie using that separation as blunt emotional leverage. At the climax of the film, Moses has even won over at least one of the cynical counter-terrorism agents who were responsible for ensnaring him. “Moses, don’t do this,” they plead with him, trying to de-escalate the situation to ensure a happy ending.

The Day Shall Come descends into an earnestness that feels extremely unconvincing and cynical. Morris’ work has always had an abrasive quality to it, but The Day Shall Come consciously pushes back against this. It feels very calculated, as if Morris doesn’t trust the audience to empathise with Moses’ plight unless the entire movie bends around the climax to reassure the audience that he is a good person and that he has been railroaded by the system. These choices within The Day Shall Come betray a lack of respect for the audience’s ability to understand a story without being explicitly told how to feel.

Psychic link.

More than that, this clumsy mawkishness exists at odds with the more convincing and more successful cynical elements of the plot. Even if the sentimentality worked well on its own terms – and it doesn’t – it would jar in contrast to the more wry parts of the story. The result is a film that just doesn’t work, that doesn’t fit together. It is a mess. There are individual elements of The Day Shall Come that are fitfully amusing and insightful, but they never add up to anything more than the most obvious conclusion to a story like this.

The Day Shall Come takes its title from a promise that Moses repeatedly offers to his followers. Unfortunately, that promise largely goes unfulfilled. It feels very fitting, in a way.

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