Chris Morris’ second feature film – following Four Lions, his 2010 satire of British jihadists – is interested in some of the same territory, this time transplanted to the US in the context of FBI stings of potential extremists. Set in an almost relentlessly sunny Miami – the opposite of bleak British skies – The Day Shall Come follows two core groups as they both intentionally and inadvertently influence the other’s path: the first, a small group of wannabe radicals led by Moses Al Shabaz (Marchánt Davis); the second, a chaotic FBI team hosting the ambitious Kendra Glack (Anna Kendrick).
In many ways, The Day Shall Come hits all the beats we’ve come to expect from the director-writer team of Morris and Jesse Armstrong, skilfully constructing an ever-accelerating plot. But there are elements that don’t land with the required force, or seem to miss their intended mark, detracting from an almost delightfully giddy exploration of a dark subject.
Although Moses preaches the coming of a war that will bring an end to “the accidental dominance of the white race”, he and his army are largely harmless, and it is difficult to set this belief – partially a response to gentrification and construction in his neighbourhood – apart from those that are more eccentric. Moses himself is stringently anti-weapon, except for toy crossbows and the air horn he believes will call CIA-hidden dinosaurs to his aid, and is certainly not a threat. Yet his live-streamed rhetoric catches the attention of Kendra, who pitches a sting operation to her superiors that, thanks to Moses’ wholesome character and the FBI’s relentless cynicism, quickly spirals out of control.
For Morris and Armstrong, such territory seems ripe – the idea of law enforcement agencies encouraging targets to take more extreme or violent action, only to arrest them, is farcical and terrifying on its face. Both writers have also long demonstrated an interest in the dynamics and inanity of power, with Armstrong known for co-writing In the Loop (2009) and creating the Murdoch hit-job Succession (2018-); and Morris for his landmark television shows The Day Today (1994) and Brass Eye (1997), as well as for directing several episodes of Veep (2012–2019).
This lineage is clear in The Day Shall Come – the rapid-fire dialogue, the self-involved figures of authority, the absurd escalations in logic – and often this has the desired effect of highlighting the flawed incentives of the crusade-like American approach to national security, in many ways shared by Australia and the UK. Yet the treatment of the group at the heart of the sting, the Moses-led ‘Star of Six’, sits uneasily with the apparent targets of the film: the intelligence bureaucrats and the state security apparatus.
It should be said that Davis brings an incredible performance as Moses, balancing charisma and wide-eyed innocence in his first feature role. With his actions driven by the hope of preventing his family’s eviction, and a sincere desire to build a better life for his followers without causing harm (his main enemies are a set of nearby cranes, rather than people), he is set up as a fundamentally decent man trying his best. But with his hallucinations, delusions of grandeur, and inability to grasp the seriousness of the situations in which he finds himself, Moses also seems to be the unfortunate subject of the joke.
Despite the apparently sympathetic intentions of the writers, and even as Moses’ wholesome nature generates many of the film’s best turning points, his naivety and idiosyncratic obsessions – some stemming from his refusal to take medication he has been prescribed for mental health issues – are often played for laughs. During what he takes to be a business meeting, Moses wears a shower curtain and sits on the table to establish his authority; at another time he claims that God and Satan each speak to him through a duck.
This off-kilter behaviour clearly establishes Moses and the Star of Six as a group of innocents, not the worthwhile targets of an FBI sting supposedly launched to prevent a terrorist attack, which makes the FBI appear even more ruthless and immoral than they would if targeting a more capable group. But as Moses’ beliefs are revealed, they are treated as a punchline, rather than as a set of preoccupations caused or exacerbated by unspecified mental health concerns. This undermines the satirical power of having the FBI manipulate a non-dangerous group, as the film still mirrors the agents, treating Moses and his team with a lack of respect.
Other elements, such as a recurring paedophilic character working at the behest of the FBI, revisit ideas Morris has explored in his earlier work, particularly the willingness of authorities to ignore immoral behaviour if they might gain from it. But again, the balance between landing a satirical point and simply seeking laughs through the character’s behaviour isn’t reconciled, with his protestations about the ages of the people he is dating played as jokes rather than having any impact on other characters or the plot.
This is unfortunate, as Moses and his army are likeable characters we want to spend time with. The portrayal of the FBI and other agencies is also more successful in driving home the satire. For the most part the agents are racist, impulsive and grotesque, competent to a minimal degree but always focused on self-advancement and perception rather than the betterment of society. While Kendra demonstrates some sense of ethical restraint, her ambition leads her to manipulate Moses in ways equally as harmful as her colleagues’ actions. This dynamic will be familiar to anyone who has watched Veep or The Thick of It (2005–2012), with quotable, acid-laced lines flowing from the agents in every scene – so fans of these will enjoy the similar approach of The Day Shall Come.
The twisting plot also provides a number of satisfying scenes, and though some turns are predictable, their realisation is still joyful. The most exciting moments are when Moses’ inherent desire to do good by his family derails the FBI’s plans, always failing to take the obvious next step on the self-incriminating journey they have constructed for him.
This all contributes to a sense that the film, with a few shifts, could have been a sharp observation of the current political moment – a moment Morris, with his thematic preoccupations, seems almost destined to document. Hopefully it won’t be another nine years until his next film, and he can lay bare the banal incompetence of power with better precision.
The Day Shall Come will be playing on 10 August 2019 as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival.
Scott Limbrick is a writer based in Melbourne. He is Digital Producer at the Wheeler Centre and recently completed a Master of Screenwriting at the VCA. His work and bad thoughts and ideas can be found at scottlimbrick.com / @scottlimbrick.