When Chris Morris made his first feature film, Four Lions, back in 2010, it felt like an unexpected move, albeit within a career full of unexpected moves. Then best known as a satirically minded writer and performer for TV and radio, with The Day Today, Brass Eye and Blue Jam under his belt, it was bold for Morris to take on a long-form narrative film project which didn’t have him in it. Nearly ten years later, he’s followed it up with The Day Shall Come, his second feature, but somehow it doesn’t feel quite surprising enough.
To be fair, in some ways it’s no less jaw-dropping than Four Lions. It concerns Miami preacher Moses Al Shabaz (Marchánt Davis) who leads a revolutionary Hebrew Israelite community farm called The Star of Six, but with little success: the group totals five people. Despite revering ‘Black Santa’ and talking up the overthrow of “the accidental dominance of the white race”, they pose no real threat to anybody, partly because they won’t use serious weaponry but mostly because they’re just too hopeless. This makes them the ideal target for a sting operation by the FBI, who are eager to cook up a terrorist threat and pin it on a likely culprit, so it looks like they’re getting results.
To call it a companion piece to Four Lions would be putting it mildly. Following as it does a small, ridiculous band of would-be dangerous young male extremists around in their van (OK, here it’s a bus) to a final life-threatening face-off, at times it matches its forebear beat for comic beat, like a loose remake told on a bigger, broader, America-sized canvas. It explores some different issues within that, but after nearly ten years away, one might have hoped for something more radically different from Morris. Thankfully, the leads here are impressive, notably Kayvan Novak, sole returnee from Four Lions, as creepy informant Reza and, in particular, newcomer Marchánt Davis who radiates an appealing vulnerability as Moses.
The Day Shall Come does have some fresh ground to cover, in particular the suggestion that Moses is a mentally ill man being manipulated for political gain. Even with this, though, it’s pushing its luck to ask us to sympathise with him one minute and laugh at his antics the next. That’s a tricky tightrope to walk, and the characters don’t always make much of a mark beyond being daft pawns in a twisty plot.
There’s also the fact that the FBI and police characters make up a whole flip side to the story. If those elements, with their rapid-fire, overlapping dialogue and scenes of authority figures behaving ineptly, are highly reminiscent of the US comedy series Veep, it’s perhaps only fitting as Morris directed four episodes of the show himself (plus it was created by his old oppo Armando Iannucci). Even here, though, there’s a sense that no character is any less ludicrous, or any more relatable, than any other, so there’s not much to help the viewer get a purchase on proceedings within the vast volley of comic dimwittery.
Present at a preview screening of the film at HOME in Manchester on September 18, Morris comes across as every bit as sharp and smart as you’d imagine. In the flesh he’s by no means a comic turn. In a Q&A ably steered by Andy Willis, Morris seems completely at ease as he debates, challenges and upends the questions. He reveals some of the ‘100 true stories’ that the film claims to be inspired by and asserts that he favours comedy which come with a frisson of surprise, name-checking Fleabag alongside the older, canonical likes of Vivian Stanshall and Monty Python. When asked about the likelihood of a Day Today reunion, he argues that today’s less patrician, earnest style of news-casting has rendered it unnecessary.
It’s curious to reflect that The Day Shall Come was filmed in almost complete secrecy in the Dominican Republic during 2017. It’s not uncommon for films to take so long to be released and the subject matter hasn’t exactly gone away, but Morris is a known newshound and it’s been an eventful couple of years since. Futile and obvious though it is, one can’t help but wonder what he might have made of the subject of, say, Brexit Britain.
Viewed entirely on its own merits, The Day Shall Come is a brave, sometimes bitingly funny piece of work which grows thin and muddled in the telling. Within the context of Morris’s career, though, it feels like his least sure-footed move yet, and one wonders where he could possibly go from here. If he’s determined to leave performing behind – a bad move as he’s great at it – it might be rewarding for him to try an entirely straight non-comedy film next time. Whatever he decides to do, it would be a shame for Morris to become in any way predictable.
By Andy Murray, Film Editor
The Day Shall Come is on general release from October 11. The preview screening with Chris Morris Q&A at HOME took place on September 18.