"We will have a transformative experience."
In this day and age it’s almost impossible enter a movie completely blind. Internet chatter, reviews and audience reactions can give you a basic assumption of what a certain movie will be before you have even seen it, and that isn’t even taking into account the advertising which aims to try and sell the audience the movie’s conceit, or at least a version that is easily digestible. With all that in mind I was anticipating a surreal experience when I approached Boots Riley’s ‘Sorry to Bother You’, but that does not begin to scratch the surface.
In the city of Oakland, a down on his luck Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) finds work as a telemarketer. Cassius begins to flourish in the profession due to his tactic of using a “white voice” to entice customers and improve his sales. As his own stature escalates however, he comes into conflict between his own career ambition and the needs of his co-workers as they stand and fight against the corporate oppression hanging over them all.
The most striking selling point of ‘Sorry to Bother You’ is the aforementioned “white voice” that proves integral to the plot. A narrative device that is both surreal in execution but contains a strong element of grounded realism to it. I was under the impression that it would allude to the film’s central thematic crux (namely a statement on race relations) and be the high point of the film’s turn into surrealism. However even those already specific expectations were blown completely out of the water.
Though issues of race dynamics and relations do factor into the theme of ‘Sorry to Bother You’, Boots Riley’s film is ultimately far more audacious and daring in what it is saying, as well as how blunt and evocative its statement is. Riley’s movie is concerned with class, capitalism, labour laws, the rights of workers, the media we consume every day and the intersection at which all of these subjects collide. It’s a tour de force of argumentative filmmaking that is as much a scathing satire of modern life as it is an exercise in constantly subverting audience expectations.
The movie’s existence is in of itself a paradox, simultaneously absurd and unreal beyond almost anything else to hit cinemas in recent years whilst also being so thoroughly grounded in real world concepts that is speaks loudly and confidently about. It is certainly a blunt and direct movie, which could become grating had its theme been limited to just one subject. However Riley traverses such an array of topics that the film avoids growing stale. The fact that his methods of conveying those themes to the audience only grow more overt as the film progresses make the pace and structure of the message even more meaningful. Some have deemed the third act as a twist or harsh left turn, but I would simply regard it as the escalation of what came before it.
It’s rare in this day and age to see an ensemble cast of this calibre so utterly committed to a project this inherently bizarre. However Riley has assembled just such a cast with the likes of Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson and Steven Yuen who are definitely the most humane voices in this darkly comedic trip. Each actor brings a distinct level of grounded morality that provides some clarity to the more deranged aspects. ‘Sorry to Bother You’ might risk being little more than empty absurdity but the nuance of these characters puts those oddities in a human context that serves as a statement on the real lives affected by these harder to grasp concepts. If you can’t wrap your head around the broader ideas Riley is commenting on then you can at least appreciate the empathetic performance of Stanfield as he traverses his own nightmarish journey.
Other actors like Armie Hammer and Omari Hardwick are very much caricatures, but they are caricatures that serve as stand in for wider ideas. Every character placement, every design choice and every plot point all serve Riley’s powerful and provocative declaration. ‘Sorry to Bother You’ demands repeat viewings as your first outing might leave you awestruck at the sheer absurdity of the narrative, however a closer look will reveal the many subtle ways the film goes about making a statement.
However it would be easy to focus on the audacity within the script of ‘Sorry to Bother You’ that one may overlook the visual dynamics of Riley’s direction. According to the writer/director he attempted to pass the script around the film industry for several years looking for a director, only to be told and resolve that only he could direct it. Observing the way Riley handles the film’s elevated satire whilst not forgetting the dramatic irony that makes its thematic conceit so ultimately powerful, it’s hard to disagree with that assessment. He ensures that every scene of the film is pulsating and robust, so that it never descends into a simple lecture. As much as I’ve droned on about the direct ways ‘Sorry to Bother You’ communicates with the audience, one should never overlook Riley’s ability to do that with a single image. There are frames of this film that have more to say than the entire scripts of other movies.
A darkly comedic, broadly topical and increasingly absurd tour de force, ‘Sorry to Bother You’ is a proactive and deliriously energetic work of cinema.