Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival. IFC Films releases the film on Friday, September 27.
Almost a decade ago, British satirist Christopher Morris took an exciting turn into the filmmaking arena with “Four Lions,” a subversive post-9/11 romp about bumbling Islamic jihadists whose murderous plot goes haywire with hilarious results. The movie’s brilliance stemmed from the way it poked fun at the terrorist’s slapstick endeavors without negating the tragedy of their murderous convictions.
His long-overdue followup “The Day Shall Come” flips that equation, targeting a team of clumsy Miami-based FBI agents whose bureaucratic process for taking on terrorists yields the same dysfunctional results. This time, Morris has less command over the edgy material, positioning his modern-day Keystone Cops in a series of smarmy vignettes that don’t cut quite as deep. But it still delivers a scathing and often very funny indictment of homeland insecurities.
Morris’ movie opens by proclaiming that it has been “based on a hundred true stories,” and it’s easy to see why: The threat in “The Day Shall Come” has less to do with actual terrorist threats so much than the sea of dogmatic misfits who lack the resources to pull anything off in the first place. The movie makes the case that ludicrous terrorist cells crop up on a regular basis, providing easy targets for government agents eager to fill their quotas. This includes Kendra (Anna Kendrick), a restless FBI staffer keen on uncovering would-be terrorist cells and planting moles to help take them down. Her boss Andy (a hilariously condescending Dennis O’Hare) hopes the small office can nail a big threat after the team wastes its time on small-town busts.
Kendra thinks she’s found the perfect target in Moses Al Shabaz (Marchánt Davis), a black militant extremist and twisted conspiracy theorist who broadcasts his confounding messianic proclamation on Facebook Live. Moses, who runs a broken-down mission called The Star of Six Farm, pledges his allegiance to a confusing blend of religious and cultural reference points that includes Jesus, Mohammed, and General Toussaint Louverture.
Kendra thinks she’s found the ideal gullible target; her P.C. peers are wary of looking beyond the brown-skinned targets they usually chase down (“Black is no longer cool!”) but can find no better option. After she deploys her klutzy informant Reza (Kayvan Novak), a sex criminal whom she blackmails into doing her bidding, “The Day Shall Come” oscillates between Kendra’s messy workplace ambitions and Moses’ zany belief that Reza could help him pull off a violent national takeover.
But while the misguided goofballs of “Four Lions” had a cogent plan to blow themselves up, Moses’ impractical ambitions lead to a series of misconceived plots. As his farm goes broke and his wife threatens to leave him, Moses and his clueless posse find themselves ensnared in a bizarre scheme to score fake nuclear weapons from neo-Nazis, while Kendra’s team waits for him to cross a line so she can drag him in. Her vulgar workplace includes recurring clashes with her alpha male boss, which leads to a string of cartoonish pronouncements that wouldn’t sound of place on “Veep” (which Morris has directed). The one-liners come hard and fast as Kendra argues against bringing Moses in until she can nail him for a specific crime. “Next thing you know, the Statue of Liberty is wearing a burka and we’re beheading Bruce Springsteen,” she’s told.
The ensuing odyssey goes awry many times over, with the naive Moses at one point attempting to inform on himself as his options collapse. He’s an endearing character with delusions of grandeur, victimized by American forces eager to capitalize on his idiocy, and by the end of the movie he’s practically a lovable naif. Unfortunately, Morris can’t seem to find the right hook to expand this material to wider terrain. The bureaucratic mismanagement can only hold so much appeal before the movie’s central premise starts to repeat itself, and the story ends with little more than shrug.
However, Morris’ talent is evident in nearly every scene, and his cast digs into the opportunity to have fun with this riotous material. It’s a blast to watch Kendrick tackle the role of a wily, overambitious workaholic in such a subversive context, and Morris’ ability to poke fun at Moses’ wild-eyed convictions while generating legitimate empathy for his tragic situation speaks to the sophistication driving this subversive comedy forward.
Despite those high points, the movie suffers from a fleeting, half-baked quality as it rushes to a hectic showdown. The cynical finale has plenty of good ideas, but even as a profound statement on modern investigative failures it still ends up feeling slight. Nevertheless, “The Day Shall Come” provides welcome evidence that Morris should be making movies more often, as even this underrealized missive displays a penchant for capturing the sheer lunacy of the war on the terror. Morris digs into the ecosystem of the FBI’s outrageous infighting with the same edgy vision he brings to the supposed bad guys. Even as its climax fizzles, “The Day Shall Come” offers sobering evidence that in a pointless battle, both sides lose simply by fighting it in the first place.
“The Day Shall Come” premiered at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival.