Nearly 10 years after Four Lions established that Chris Morris’ brand of satire could make the transition from the small to the big screen, the director is back with his second feature, co-written (once again) with fellow UK satire alumnus Jesse Armstrong. This time, Morris sets his sights on those perpetrating and perpetuating the war on terror, highlighting the human costs of a world where being seen to stop terrorism is more important than whether the terrorism actually exists or not.
The film follows Moses Al Shabaz (Marchánt Davis), a mentally ill idealist who – through a series of increasingly desperate acts – finds himself the target of the US government’s anti-terrorism campaign, even though his organisation has no resources, no weapons and no credible agenda.
That changes when the FBI – represented by ambitious young agent Kendra Glack (Anna Kendrick) – takes notice of his cobbled-together online broadcast. Sensing an opportunity to “prevent the next 9/11”, they offer Moses the means to save his home and family, but only if he accepts their offer to amass an arsenal on US soil. From there, things spin wildly out of control for all involved.
Morris’ ruthless humour echoes throughout the film, inhabiting every moment with a mix of broad, laugh-out-loud absurdity and casually brutal wit. The comic performances of its cast are entirely up to the job of selling the dissonance that arises from placing near-cartoonish figures like Kayvan Novak’s bumbling paedophile operative side-by-side with Danielle Brooks as Moses’s genuinely and legitimately concerned wife. As a comedy, it more than succeeds in being both cerebral and funny – hardly a given.
That said, the movie’s tone overall is more empathetic than you might expect from the notoriously unforgiving mind behind Brass Eye, leading to a climactic scene that’s as emotionally affecting as any Morris has yet shot. We can speculate as to whether Morris has softened with age or whether he’s simply seeking to engage viewers on an additional level, but it’s an undeniably successful moment and one that shows Morris’ considerable skills being employed in new ways.
It’s a shame that there are some bum notes in there, too. Moses, especially, is poorly-drawn on the script level: a bundle of disparate traits that don’t quite hang together. He’s great when he’s hopelessly naïve, or outright delusional, or even legitimately concerned for the future of his family – but he doesn’t quite become real. Some lip-service nods in the direction of mental illness only serve to confuse, rather than cohere his character. Without the strength of Davis’ performance, it’s debatable whether it would work at all.
With an 88-minute runtime, one of the concerns is that it doesn’t feel quite big enough. Perhaps reflecting the increased scope of American TV shows, this it feels more like an extended episode of Veep than the considerably more cinematic Four Lions. The short running time is about right – it couldn’t stand to be much longer without sagging – but you can imagine a version of the film where things get more out of control, more preposterous, and thus become more effective in justifying the political stance Morris has taken. As it is, the story is too small.
Because the biggest problem with The Day Shall Come – perhaps the only real one – is that it’s not enough. Its bite is savage, but sparing. Its thesis is hard to disagree with, but not provocative enough to inspire any actual passion.
Where Four Lions actively defused the terror inherent in terrorism, robbing it of any glamour, The Day Shall Come ends without any similar evisceration. We can agree that the tactics being used by the authorities are ineffective and immoral – but we end the film sad about what they’ve wrought, rather than angry at those that perpetuate them.
Given the near decade since Four Lions it’s hard not to look at this movie and wonder just what it was that Morris found compelling enough to break a decade of filmmaking abstinence. With all that’s going on in the world, with so much seemingly beyond satire, it’s almost as if The Day Shall Come shows Morris throwing in the towel on doing anything but making us laugh and nod when, at his best, he can make us righteously and powerfully furious.
The Day Shall Come opens in UK cinemas on 11 October.