I had been keen to see this film since the first review I’d read of it but if it ever had an Australian release I never saw it advertised. Written and directed by Boots Riley, the film follows it’s own pace and heads off in its own direction with all the confidence of a disturbing nightmare…but funny. It’s hard to describe the film without revealing aspects of the plot, which won’t spoil the film exactly but may undermine the impact.
The initial premise of the film is not a great help in getting a sense of what the film is like but it is a start. Cassius Green (played by an increasingly bewildered LaKieth Stanfield) is looking for a job. Unemployed and living in the garage of his uncle (Terry Crews), he fakes his CV for a job with a telemarketing company. The manager at the company sees through the deception but gives Cassius the job anyway.
Initially Cassius finds the work dispiriting, partly because of the low pay but also because of the intrusive nature of the work — shown visually by having him appear at his desk in people’s living rooms while they are trying to eat breakfast, mourn or have sex. However, his ability to sell things over the phone is transformed when an older man (Danny Glover) teaches him how to use his “white voice”. This isn’t a mere change in register but a whole new voice (provided by David Cross). With this new voice, Cassius’s life changes utterly, eventually leading him into the fabulously wealthy Wolf-of-Wall Street like world of the “power sellers” on the floor above.
Meanwhile, a fellow telemarketer at RegalView called Squeeze (Steven Yeun) is attempting to unionise the workforce and organise a strike, Cassius’s girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson) is attempting to launch her art exhibition, and obnoxious TechBro Steve Lift (Armie Hammer) has plans to change the very concept of work and employment.
Set in a world that isn’t quite ours, the film rests on slow humour and visual gags to weave a disturbing social satire. Everything is off balance, including the script and the story directions. Familiar images and settings only add to the constant unsettled feeling. On television the only show is “I Got the Shit Kicked Out of Me” and the adverts are all for “WorryFree”, Steve Lift’s modern day version of indentured servitude ‘disrupting’ the job market.
There are few laugh out loud gags and many surreal moments. The more science fictional elements become overt towards the end. The whole is something that has elements of Metropolis, Chaplin’s Modern Times, Peele’s Get Out with a dash of Philip K Dick paranoia. The ‘message’ is a simple observation that modern capitalism and the modern work place is dehumanizing us all and stripping people of their identities.
This isn’t a subtle film, except that the off kilter, spiraling plot carefully matches the central character’s own emotional journey. On the way the alienation from impostor syndrome, sudden wealth or viral-video notoriety are all touched on as the increasingly bloodied and disheveled Cassius discovers the world makes even less sense than he ever thought it did.