It’s fair to say that Chris Morris changed the face of British comedy. There had been decades of satire before him, and plenty of absurdist surrealism, but Morris was the first to pair the two into one visionary package. Some 25 years ago, his parody sketch show The Day Today foresaw not only the cacophonous rise of the 24-hour news media, but also the ludicrous state that global politics would morph into. In the age of Donald Trump and Brexit, it’s almost impossible to imagine what that show could possibly do now to top that achievement but the great thing about Morris is that he has never tried. Indeed part of the appeal of his mercurial talent is that no one ever knows what he’ll do next.
Morris resisted the call of the big screen for many years, and, in true Morris style, his film debut, the hilarious – and BAFTA-winning – Four Lions, was impossible to characterise, a slapstick comedy with endearing characters who just so happened to be four Pakistani suicide bombers from Sheffield. It quickly became a cult classic, giving its star, Riz Ahmed, a leg up to Hollywood success.
The Day Shall Come – the long-gestating follow-up, which he filmed guerrilla-style on the sly in the ’hoods of Miami, Florida – could almost be a sequel of sorts. Although its premise might seem fanciful and at times preposterous, Morris’ film is as rooted in reality as his debut. But if Four Lions was about the appeal of terror for those lured into it, The Day Shall Come is about the terror industry that exists on the other side: the need for terror to exist in the first place, so that government agencies can be seen to act against it.
The breakout star this time is Moses (newcomer Marchánt Davis), a Miami preacher with dreams of self-sufficiency on his own urban farm. Moses has his followers, but not many, and his fiery rhetoric brings him to the attention of FBI agent Kendra (Anna Kendrick), whose boss (Denis O’Hare) has been gunning for a terrorist scalp ever since a plot to catch a would-be spring break bomber fell through. Kendra thinks she has a dangerous jihadi on her hands, but Moses is really a soft-hearted dreamer with delusions of grandeur – as Kendra learns, to her horror, when he refuses to play the game she has in store for him.
The director’s work on the first series of Armando Iannucci’s political satire, Veep, stands him in good stead here, and Kendrick in particular has fun with the dialogue (written by Jesse Armstrong – Peep Show, The Thick Of It, Four Lions). Although Moses’ unawareness could warrant some laughs – dressing for his first meeting with an FBI asset, his regal “robes” are made from shower curtains – the authority figures are the real clowns here. Using subtle sleight of hand, Morris slyly focuses our allegiances to Moses, a struggling African-American family guy coping with a tough hand that life has dealt him, and it’s a powerful moment in the film where Kendra begins to understand that too.
Morris’s trademark dark humour is in full effect throughout, but there’s also a rich vein of emotion that stays long after the credits. It’s a haunting reminder that The Day Shall Come is based “on a hundred true stories” – like Florida’s Liberty City Seven, who were convicted of planning a massive bombing campaign in 2006, despite having no explosive materials whatsoever. After the laughter subsides, there’s a timely and provocative message about the banal reality that often lies behind the sensational headlines in our security-sensitive, scapegoating, post-9/11 world.