Wildlife, Sorry to Bother You, and Happy New Year, Colin Burstead.
Note: elements of this article also ran on Set the Tape (link).
You are not ready for Sorry to Bother You (Grade: A-).
You may think that you are ready for the directorial debut of rapper and activist Boots Riley, that you heard all those raves and notices from its release in America back in July with talks of its relevancy and its weirdness, that you watched that trailer over and over again in the months since the film was stuck in international release limbo due to, let’s be blunt, racism. So, you may think that you are ready for Sorry to Bother You and I am here to tell you right now that you ain’t. Nuh-uh. See, I thought I was ready for this movie. I thought that I was prepared for a hilarious racial satire that would also feed upon the predatory nature of a capitalist society for additional material, as broke loser Cassius “Cash” Green (a pitch-perfect Lakeith Stanfield) finds his calling in telemarketing by tapping into the potential of his White Guy voice (dubbed over by David Cross), but that’s not Sorry to Bother You. That, believe it or not, is only the first 40 minutes of Sorry to Bother You and you wouldn’t believe me if I told you where we ended up once the film finally cuts to credits.
I feel like I’ve witnessed something truly transgressive. Not in the way that twits like Gaspar Noé or Darren Aronofsky or Lars von Trier perceive ‘transgressive,’ but in the sense that it feels like Boots Riley has managed to sneak something truly radical into mainstream cinemas without ever having to compromise on anything. Sorry to Bother You is full of striking images and inventive means of presenting its concepts – there’s the prior-revealed White Guy voice, Cash literally dropping into the current room of whomever he is calling to symbolise the intrusive nature of his job (getting smoother and more intimate the better he gets at it), turning the battle between corporations and workers over the latter’s basic rights into an actual warzone, and those are just the ones I can tell you about – with more inspiration than many directors manage across their entire careers. It is absolutely hysterical with mountains of quotable lines (“you’re sidestepping more than The Temptations”) and instant-classic bits, excellent performances (especially the unstoppable Tessa Thompson), and deliriously raucous sense of fun throughout.
This, however, is all a trojan horse. Sorry to Bother You is the most fun film of the year, but it is also the most blisteringly angry and most radical film of the year because Boots Riley has disguised a Communist manifesto inside of a horror movie and disguised that horror movie inside of a comedy. The Oakland of Riley’s vision is not our own, but its heightened nature is informed in the soul-crushing horror of living day-to-day in this late-Capitalist dystopia as a poor minority. There are labour camps that resemble those already perpetrated by America’s industrial prison complexes, sold with beaming smiles as some kind of ethical and worker-friendly option because they are “guaranteed employment,” and whose CEO (the smarmiest Armie Hammer you will see in your entire life) stresses is absolutely not slave labour because “our employees aren’t forced to sign their contracts under threat of violence.” The highest-rated television show in the country, with 150 million viewers, is called “I Got the S*** Kicked Out of Me,” ritual physical humiliation designed to pacify the lower-classes by making them feel good about themselves because, hey, at least they’re not literally getting the shit kicked out of them – minorities who want to make a public point need to have their bodies bloodied, beaten, and covered in shit on the show before they’re heard. Corporations will latch onto the latest woke movements for easy PR points, a joke that’s gotten A LOT more pointed in recent months, and everyone will sell out their principles to get what’s theirs because that’s what the system trains them to do.
The heads of this industry are wealthy douchey tech bros selling the idea of selling. What Cash and his fellow telemarketers are selling, exactly, is never clear and that’s perhaps the most vicious joke in a film not lacking for vicious jokes. Capitalism, after all, is all about selling the idea of Capitalism. The specifics aren’t important, the idea is that YOU want THIS, this nebulous thing that will make you and your life better; books on birdwatching, Viagra pills, or 1000s of cheap heavily-exploited worker drones who can mass-produce your products at a fraction of the cost of your competitors to maximise profits. Beating a dead workforce gets taken to new terrifying heights in Riley’s universe, corporations finding new ways to synergise and maximise efficiency for the benefit of the power callers at the expense of the basement dwellers subsisting on pittance commission akin to discovering the next step of human evolution. To Riley, Capitalism is nothing less than the legitimisation of White Supremacy on a fundamental societal level.
And if you think that Riley has got it in his head that he can enact some kind of deep societal change through his art and is a deluded fool for doing so, he’s one step ahead of you. As Cash falls ever deeper into the sway of the system, and his friend Squeeze (Steven Yuen) is fighting on the frontlines for unionisation whilst the powers-that-be laugh in his insignificant face, Detroit (Thompson), his girlfriend, channels her radical messages into her artwork. Artwork she is forced to sell to upscale White buyers using the same technique as Cash, artwork that most people just don’t get anyway, artwork that preaches to an already-converted audience, artwork whose tertiary audience sees Black people as trendy fashion statements whose culture is just an excuse for them to yell “nigga” without getting in trouble for it. Riley’s all-out assault on Capitalism comes at the subject from every possible angle, mining equal amounts of laughs and crushing despair as he goes through each potential avenue of addressing the issues at hand and comes up short on answers each time – talk shows, artwork, leaking info to the press, unionising, peaceful protests, all backfiring in this rigged, racist, classist system
His desire to cover every single facet of this topic, and throw every last idea he has rattling around in his head into the movie, can make the film overall messy and unfocussed, especially since he’s in the habit of discarding ideas the moment their value runs out, but it’s damn effective all the same. And it is incredibly cathartic to watch a film like this in 2018 that advocates nothing so much as armed revolution to be the only workable response to centuries of class warfare, systemic racism, and continuing disenfranchisement of minorities at the expense of the rich White ruling classes. That Riley puts together such a statement whilst also packing Sorry to Bother You to the brim with memorable characters, a striking directorial style, and the kind of swaggering supreme confidence that all the best debut features are powered by is mind-blowing. Sorry to Bother You is not a perfect film, it can be kind of a mess, and it is going to fuck with some heads and piss a lot of people off, but it is the most urgent and thrilling work of cinema I have seen all year and most likely am going to see all year. And despite everything I have just typed, I still have not adequately prepared you for it because you cannot be. Filmmaking this singular and this energised is impossible to be fully ready for.
Around the midpoint of Paul Dano’s directorial debut, Wildlife (Grade: B), Bill Camp’s Warren Miller, in an attempt to bond with young Joe Brinson (Ed Oxenbould) and explain the recent actions of Joe’s mother Jeanette (Carey Mulligan), tells an anecdote of the time he took his plane up into the air. He was meant to survey a farmer’s failed crops from upon high and figure out what went wrong with them, but he became distracted by seeing several flocks of geese flying around his plane in a V-formation. Rather than do his job, he switched off his engine at 4,000ft and sat in the air listening to the geese honk. The thought about what those below who loved or counted on him, his friends and family and employees at his successful businesses, would do never entered his mind. It’s not that he didn’t care about them, he just needed this moment to himself. Joe smiles and nods, briefly accepting this excuse as fact given that the man talking to him is at least thrice his age, but we can tell he knows deep down that this is wrong. Yet he keeps his silence because it’s not like Warren’s going to stop enabling his mom.
It’s 1960 in suburban Montana. The Brinsons, consisting of stay-at-home mom Jeanette, working father Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal), and 14-year-old Joe, are the picture-perfect suburban family. They have a decent house, Jerry’s working and pretty good at his job, Jeanette and he get on great, and Joe is working at an advanced level for his class and trying out football. But the cracks soon start to show: cheques are bouncing, Jerry gets fired for insubordination and turns to the bottle, the strain of the Brinson’s marriage is starting to show since it turns out that they’ve spent much of their lives moving states whenever Jerry loses a job, and there are raging wildfires deep in Montana that Jerry’s wounded masculinity is drawing him towards for work as some kind of self-flagellation. Jeanette has had enough, Jerry runs away (again) to take on this dangerous work, and Joe is left to watch his mother crumble under a lifetime of regret and resentment that she is passively taking out on him.
Wildlife is about two people drowning, thrashing and clawing with no greater plan, dragging their son down with them for no better reason than his being around to act as a witness. If you’ve come from a broken home, forced to watch one or both of your parents self-destruct at that specific age where you are old enough to be cognizant of what they are doing but too young to save them or yourself from the damage, then Wildlife will strike all of your rawest nerves because I can tell you for a fact that it did so for me. This is a very reactive film, which is reflected by Dano’s austere direction, all tight close-ups on actors faces and wider shots emphasising the uncomfortable distance and empty space in the lives of the Brinsons. Joe’s parents alternate between infantilising him and trying to force a hard decision on matters he’s way out of his depth with. Jerry drags his son out to his pity drinking sessions, looking for unspoken dirt on Jeanette’s antics and a silent shoulder to cry on whilst Joe sits in uncomfortable silence. Jeanette is arguably even worse, bringing Joe along on her dalliances with a formerly-married man at least twice her age for no good reason and dumping her depression on him as if it’s Joe’s fault she can’t figure out some kind of solution.
A lot more of these scenes than I feel comfortable admitting reflected personal experiences across my life, and Dano (plus co-screenwriter Zoe Kazan) replicate that truth to a painful degree. All that emotional torture and feelings of helpless loss, impossible to find the right words and settling for the ones that may cause the least trouble. Gyllenhaal and Mulligan are both excellent, because of course they both are, but the true star is Oxenbould. His is a vital performance as the film is predominately from Joe’s perspective, with the viewer only occasionally being made privy to information he’s not, and he’s absolutely brilliant. He’s been blessed with the kind of doe-eyes and round cherubic face that are made for characters losing their innocence, but he also knows how to best to work those features and infuse them with soul.
Dano’s debut doesn’t always work – it escalates to an act that feels too grand for a film this insular, especially since the consequences are swept away as soon as it’s done, and the script can’t resist being a vessel for monologue speeches that cryptically explain the film’s themes every now and again – but Wildlife does build to a killer final shot. There’s a runner throughout the film involving Joe getting a job at a photo shop in order to help bring some income into the house, designed to demonstrate how people take photos as permanent records of idealised moments in time. And whilst Dano returning to that idea for his closer sounds incredibly hacky, in reality it undercuts the seemingly clean resolution by lingering on the messy damages wrought across the narrative. That some family wounds are too deep-seated and uncomfortable to sufficiently suppress for even the length of a single photograph.
Ben Wheatley is a filmmaker whose ambition has grown in proportion to his stature. This is a director who followed up the working-class chamber piece Down Terrace with his attempt to make a 21st Century Wicker Man in the shape of Kill List. And ever since that film put his name on the map, he’s been stretching his talents to the point where even his films you could describe as minor or tossed-off works in theory are in practice deceptively complex on either a thematic (A Field in England) or filmmaking level (Free Fire). So that makes Happy New Year, Colin Burstead (Grade: B-) a paradoxically noteworthy entry in Wheatley’s canon: a minor tossed-off work put together seemingly just because he had a weekend or two free, a big fancy manor house that was cheap to rent, and a murderer’s row of bubbling-under or just-plain-under-valued British actors and actresses who also had a weekend to kill and jumped at the call to work with one of British cinema’s great cult directors. This is less a “back-to-basics” movie and more a stopgap on Wheatley’s journeyman career.
Still, it’s a testament to Wheatley as both a writer and a director – important thing to note is that this is his first film since Kill List not to include partner-in-crime Amy Jump in any non-Producer capacity – that even his toss-offs are highly entertaining and extremely high-quality in the execution of their intentions. Colin Burstead‘s is to accurately recreate the absolute worst New Year’s Eve party you have ever had, via the (very) extended Burstead family. The titular Colin (Neil Maskell) has rented out a massive manor house in Dorset for the New Year’s to treat his Mum and Dad after a hard year for her, and such an occasion brings every single branch if the clan to the one building despite most of them being incapable of standing each other. The Bursteads are bastards of the highest order, the pronunciation of that surname indeed sounding exactly like “bastard” for some easy but effective laughs, all exceptionally ticked off by the four-hour drive and looking for any excuse to start shit. Colin’s a bossy self-centred knob, his Dad is a drunk and notorious for shaking down the other family members for cash to waste gambling, his Mum’s entitled, his sister (Hayley Squires) is a perpetual blame-passer, seemingly everybody has fucked each other at some point, and the black sheep brother of the family, David (Sam Riley), whom no-one has talked to in five years is turning up with his new German wife after skipping out on his ex-wife and children when busted for cheating.
Those are just a fraction of the characters populating this party, but everyone’s got a grievance – whether it be harassing former exes, being offended at the opulence of the rented house, the Disco People cancelling on the day of the event, being put in a bedroom with a ceiling that’s at head-level as some kind of subliminal “fuck off,” driving four hours to fucking Dorset – and they will all take turns voicing those grievances to anyone with earshot at every opportunity. Happy New Year is an utterly exhausting movie despite only running 95 minutes, but that’s completely by design. Wheatley cuts like an absolute maniac, jumping between dozens of characters in different locations and entirely different conversations practically every few seconds in order to effectively communicate the headache-inducing feeling of being stuck at the most spiteful of family gatherings. Characters upon characters upon even more characters keep turning up and their relationships to one-another soon become intentionally ill-defined and tenuous; one character has no good reason for being at the party since he’s not related to any member of the family and everybody there makes sure to call him out on this. Dialogue is contentious and snippy rather than any semblance of witty.
Family, as Wheatley is trying to say, is a sinkhole that, if they are treating you wrong, owe you nothing. And also maybe you’re a prick, too, especially if you’re related to the Bursteads in any capacity. The main problem, aside from the aforementioned fact that this is a low-stakes film that’s not trying particularly hard, comes from Wheatley being too damn good at making his cast utter bastards, so the film’s eventual turn into something approaching sentimentality, with an accompanying sober tone, in the last third rings hollow. Of course, maybe that’s the point given that it’s a film about a New Year’s party and what’s hollower and more tokenistic than the obligatory sentimentality shared between family members that otherwise hate each other’s guts at New Year’s? Much more effective is the film’s big blow-off at the midpoint between Colin and David, where Wheatley’s manic editing is halted, along with the party, to fixate on this one nuclear argument that catalyses the remainder of the evening, all in one-long take as every other member of the party slowly appearing in the background of these two releasing years of pent-up rage against each other.
Still, there’s one particular reason why Happy New Year, Colin Burstead was made and it becomes clear during the credits where the roll-call of our cast, all dancing in montage at the party, seamlessly transitions into the entire crew also getting in on the action. The artifice is stripped away, Wheatley himself busts some moves with the actors whose characters are still at the party, the camera crew film each other on their iPhones and one proper digital camera, and we fade out on everybody cheering and applauding one another. Colin Burstead is an excuse for Wheatley to cut loose, properly cut loose, and have some fun with no additional pressures or expectations. It’s a transitional movie to tide his cult over until whatever his next substantial move may be and, annoyingly, he’s so good at this that the result is still compulsively enjoyable despite that.
Tomorrow: the Coen Brothers’ Netflix anthology The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Korean spy drama The Spy Gone North, and I catch up on coverage by telling you about the public screening I’ve already been to, procedural shipwreck drama Styx.