'The Day Shall Come': Film Review | SXSW 2019

Credit: See-Saw Films
Smart, bitterly funny and probably too true for most Americans to bear.

Anna Kendrick plays an FBI agent tricking a do-gooder into plotting terror in Chris Morris' acid satire.

"Based on a hundred true stories," reads the opening title card of Chris Morris' The Day Shall Come, and those who have seen docs like The Newburgh Sting and Better This World will know that's no tease. Where Morris' 2010 feature debut Four Lions imagined a bumbling crew of would-be jihadis to mock the idiocy of seeking salvation through terror, this one just exaggerates what's already happening among those who see terrorists wherever they look — U.S. intelligence officers and their shady, money-hungry informants who "bust" terrorist plots that are largely of their own making. The film represents another leap forward for the satirist, who has had a long career in the U.K. but whose work may always remain too biting to find broad success Stateside.

It bears repeating: Though the details are exaggerated for comic effect, stories like this actually happen, they aren't rare and your tax dollars pay for them.

Moses Al Shabaz (Marchánt Davis) is the leader of Star of Six,  a "community farm & mission" in Miami aiming to save African-American communities from white "gentrificators." He has just five or six followers, including his wife Venus (Danielle Brooks) and their child. But neither that nor the group's pennilessness diminishes the grandiosity of his vision, in which black revolutionaries like Haiti's Toussaint Louverture share equal billing with Jesus and Black Santa. As sincere and uplift-minded as he is, Moses is also both mentally ill — God has spoken to him through a duck, which was odd, because "usually, it was Satan talking through the duck" — and at least a little dumb.

Across town, an FBI field office is trying to capture terrorists before they strike. Which often means finding people who seem to have potentially anti-American leanings, then offering them every possible opportunity do harm — right down to pushing the detonator's buttons for them when a suspect has second thoughts.

After one operation goes south, agent Kendra Glack (Anna Kendrick) puts the screws to one of her paid informants, Reza (Kayvan Novak), whose pedophilia the Bureau tolerates because he might lead them to terrorists. Reza knows Moses and knows he needs money for his cause, but his efforts to entrap the would-be revolutionary hit a road block: God has told Moses that guns must wait until some far-off day of reckoning; for now, all he really wants is farming equipment.

Thus begins a tortured and comic back-and-forth in which the G-men try to tempt Moses into becoming an arms dealer and he finds new, increasingly weird ways of not taking the bait. Davis, in his feature debut, masters the delicate job of being ridiculous but not insultingly so: His delusions are specific, not generalizable; tellingly, they aren't shared by Venus, who encourages him to take his meds and leaves when he won't wise up. "You're being played with, Mo," she says early on. Other followers stick around, some of them more willing to take those guns than Moses is, but this is not their tale.

While Glack's boss Andy Mudd (Denis O'Hare) is a craven careerist who just wants to make any bust to distract from earlier embarrassments, Glack is more willing to see where their mission has gone off the rails. Her conscience plays a bigger role as the film progresses, but Morris and co-screenwriter Jesse Armstrong aren't about to let her save the day. Squabbling between the FBI and police raises the stakes exponentially while making it nearly impossible to end this sting operation without violence. In moments recalling Morris' work with Veep and In the Loop creator Armando Iannucci, the illogic of bureaucratic processes requires Glack to get Moses deeper into trouble if she hopes to get him out of it.

Morris isn't the kind of storyteller to offer happy endings that don't ring true, and the dispiriting resolution here, while not as horrifying as it might have been, reflects the truth the director saw as he read news accounts of post-9/11 government stings. Does it matter that the people accused of planning a "full ground war" have no weapons, knowledge or connection to terrorist groups? Does it matter that the teenage anti-war protesters objected to all forms of violence until a paid government agent bullied them into making Molotov cocktails? If overlooking reality means that dubious anti-terrorist programs can claim one more threat has been neutralized, probably not.

Production companies: See-Saw Films, Perp & Co.
Cast: Marchánt Davis, Danielle Brooks, Anna Kendrick, Denis O'Hare, Andrel McPherson, Curtiss Cook Jr., Malcolm Mays, Kayvan Novak, Pej Vahdat, Jim Gaffigan
Director: Chris Morris
Screenwriters: Chris Morris, Jesse Armstrong
Producers: Iain Canning, Emile Sherman, Anne Carey, Chris Morris, Derrin Schlesinger
Executive producers: Daniel Battsek, Sue Bruce-Smith, Tessa Ross, Mary Burke
Director of photography: Marcel Zyskind
Production designer: Lucio Seixas
Costume designer: Marci Rodgers
Editor: Billy Sneddon
Composers: Jonathan Whitehead, Sebastian Rochford, Chris Morris
Casting director: Deborah Maxwell Dion
Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Narrative Spotlight)
Sales: FilmNation Entertainment

87 minutes