Last time Chris Morris directed a film he took satirical aim at a Sheffield-based terrorist cell in the brilliant Four Lions. Now, almost a decade later, he turns his fire on the FBI and their efforts to set up a group of low-level nutters with “the threat signature of a hotdog”.
The non-terrorists are a black nationalist army of four, under the command of Moses (Marchánt Davis), who hears messages from God through his farm animals and drastically overestimates his own powers, both spiritual and temporal. Like the four lions he’s totally incompetent, but unlike them he’s not a danger, falling victim to an agency who care more about racking up terrorism convictions than preventing genuine threats to Americans.
Morris claims that this has really happened in at least 100 cases, and as such sees this as an exposé of corrupt tactics in American law enforcement. I don’t know anything about the real-life cases, and if I hadn’t seen an interview with Morris beforehand in which he explained it, I would have thought this was over-exaggerating police corruption. But by not basing it on any single true story it’s difficult to take away a message from watching the film alone.
It’s not as funny as some of Morris’s other work, raising the odd chuckle thanks to In The Loop style blokey banter between the cops, and the antics of the foolhardy would-be prophet. It benefits from strong performances, mainly Davis as the hapless leader who, in spite of some questionable views and genuine attempts at wrongdoing, remains sympathetic.
Its portrayal of the FBI is also good. They’re not fire-spitting racists, or even particularly cynical. They’re just blinded by the immediate goal of arrests to the point they’ve forgotten their ultimate mission, and find themselves justifying the most ludicrous tactics to get there. This is particularly true of Kendra (Anna Kendrick) who has the most sympathy for her victim, but also employs some of the most ruthless methods.
And it’s clear who the joke is on. While Moses may be a fool, he’s an honest fool, motivated by finding a way out of poverty. It’s the well-resourced and deceitful agency, who see entrapment as the most effective tool at their disposal, who are ultimately the butt of the joke as they chase their own tails and spin their own tales to distraction. This adds up to another strong effort from Morris, even if its less widely known topic and sparser humour mean it’s unlikely to enter the canon of classic comedies alongside its 2010 predecessor.