Ken Loach's latest film, Sorry We Missed You (the sign that Fed-ex and Amazon delivery people leave when you are not home) brilliantly captures the dehumanizing mania of late capitalism in which the bosses, the workers, and the consumers are all entangled in a malignant matrix.
Sorry We Missed You is a powerful exposure of two interrelated evils—capitalism's fraudulent reclassification of its workers as independent contractors and its organization of millions of frenzied worker bees .
Written by Paul Laverty, with compelling dialogue and character development, and distributed by Zeitgeist Films, Sorry We Missed You is a powerful exposure of two interrelated evils—capitalism's fraudulent reclassification of its workers as independent contractors and its organization of millions of frenzied worker bees driving all over the cities in their own cars and vans delivering pizzas and packages to a hungry public. This madness reached scale decades ago with Domino's Pizza promising delivery in 30 minutes or less even if its drivers had to kill pedestrians en route.
Now, this murderous mania is on steroids shaped by Jeff Bezos' Amazon's selling prime memberships that promised two-day delivery, now one-day delivery, same-day delivery by drone, and soon one-hour delivery. Now, driving this madness full circle, just the other day Domino's is now offering its customers GPS tracking of their pizza so the consumer can become another tyrannical boss over the working class. Sorry We Missed You portrays the life of a working class family as heartbreaking and terrifying.
In the film's first scene, as the dialogue begins off camera, Maloney (Ross Brewer), the company manager, is grilling Ricky (Chris Hitchen), who is seeking employment with his delivery firm. Ricky explains that he has done every job under the sun. "I've done it all but there's always someone on my back. I'd rather be my own boss."
Maloney asks if he has ever been on "the dole" (British government income support for laid off workers) and Ricky answers, "No, I've got my pride. I'd rather starve." Ricky, having proven his contempt for the limited social programs the working class has fought for, is prime subject for the Brave New World of labor/management relations that Maloney explains,
"You don’t get hired here; you come onboard. We like to call it onboarding. You don’t work for us; you work with us. You don’t drive for us; you perform services. There’s no employment contracts, there’s no wages, but fees. No clocking on. You become available. Master of your own destiny. Sorts the fucking losers from the warriors.”
Ricky is thrilled to be a warrior. Ricky is told he has to have his own truck to do the job. But who will pay for the gas, or the insurance? Ricky "the boss" of course.
Ricky is in his late 30s or early 40s and already looks exhausted before he begins. As soon as he comes home with the great news, the fundamental contradictions of patriarchy, male chauvinism, and the unbearable burdens on the working class nuclear family become instantly apparent. He needs a van for his new job—or rather, his new "onboarding"— but where can he get the down payment? He asks, then begs, then argues that his wife Abbie (Debbie Honeywood) must sell her car.
But she has her own job as traveling health care worker helping elderly patients one apartment at a time all over the city. And yes, she is saint as many of them are. She needs that car to do her job. She begs him not to ask, but he has to. In the classic structure of the nuclear family, despite grave misgivings and personal pain, she agrees to sell her car to prop up her husband's desperate need to be the primary bread winner—even though she is the one with the steady job.
She warns him, "But we will never see each other; you will work 12 hours a day, 6 days a week. You won't see the kids, or me." “Yes,” he answers “but in a year we can have a franchise. His wisecracking but also wise teen-age son Seb (Rhys Stone) observes, "Oh great, Dad, a McDonalds?" "No smart ass" Dad replies. He is already a successful entrepreneur in his not-yet-purchased white van. In just the first few minutes we see a tragedy unfolding.
Ricky shows up for his first day work armed with his new van. He is given the two things he needs for success—his own scanner (the company calls it a "preciser" so he has to deliver all packages precisely inside a one hour slot) and a plastic bottle that his trainer explains is "your most important tool." When Ricky asks, "What's that for?" the trainer explains, “So you don't have to stop to go to the bathroom. You just piss in the bottle.” After all, time is money.
Roach and Laverty show the story from the perspectives of Ricky the father, Abbie, the mother and wife, Seb, the teen-age son and Liza Jane (Katie Proctor) the teen-age daughter. Abbie's character is complexly drawn as the caring home care worker. Through her eyes we see the lives of elderly working people facing memory loss and the terror of debilitating capacity and loneliness. We see the brutal speed-up of public sector workers as well as Abbie has to work so many hours that she has to use her cell phone to call her children to explain the food she left for them and encouraging them to do their homework—heartbroken she can't help them as she tends to her patients that the social service agencies call "clients."
The film exposes grossly underfunded public agencies trying to serve a declining and terrified working class staffed by harried, hassled, and exhausted public servants. So while Ricky is running all over the city in his van at breakneck speed, Abbie is moving from patient to patient on public transportation—using each bus stop as her office as she tries to make sense out of her own life.
There are moving scenes of Abbie combing the hair a beautiful elderly woman, helping an older man with a diaper, and having her own hair brushed by a patient—using her own breaks to run back around the city, to help patients whose needs are far more than the job can provide. "I would do for you what I would do for my own mum" she re-assures a dependent patient but also complains, "Whatever happened to the 8-hour day."
As Ricky makes his rounds, he begs, then threatens, and almost assaults a customer into finally signing for his package—for without that signature he will not get paid. Then he starts a debate with a customer over competing soccer/football teams that quickly escalates into a shouting match as we see the working class having more passion about their sports teams than their own lives—seeking meaning and hope in the lives of others. Meanwhile, Seb and Liza Jane grow up together on their computer and cell phones with video chats and video games providing company for their lonely and alienated lives as their parents are exhausted crashing on the couch.
In a poignant scene, Ricky takes Liza Jane with him to work and she is such a great help since it's a two-person job anyway. There is deep connection between father and daughter and for a fleeting moment we hope perhaps this is one answer to the many unanswerable questions the film raises. But the next day, Ricky comes to work and is told by Maloney that because of one customer’s complaint, his daughter can't accompany him any longer.
“But why?” Ricky protests. "It's my van, my insurance, my daughter." Yes, Maloney replies, "but it's our franchise. Nobody fucks with the clients."
How profoundly painful when the autocracy just makes up the rules as it goes along and tells you "Yes you are your own boss...but I'm the boss of the bosses." Its things like this that drive people crazy as you want to kill your foreman but know you will lose your job. And yes, we can see that “crazy” is where Ricky is being driven.
And yet, in what reader Chris Miller from the UK called "the turning point of the film" Ricky sells out one of his fellow workers to seek personal gain. Let Chris explain it,
"The central issue of the film is solidarity, and that it is the lack of any such that makes the central character, Ricky, essentially unlikeable. Fairly early in the film Ricky is offered a 'round' (a term well understood in the UK) that another driver finds too difficult, the other driver is upset and angry and challenges the boss. Ricky is doing okay at that point but he is greedy/hungry—take your pick—and does not hesitate to take on the extra load, fatally undermining the other driver's case. I would suggest that this is the turning point of the movie."
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The question of speed-up was not invented by Amazon or Fed-ex. As early as 1911 Frederick Taylor wrote the book, Principles of Scientific Management, that developed the concepts of time and motion studies. The core principle was that workers did not want to work as hard or fast as management wanted but only what they felt was "fair." Management, in that it's called a class struggle by all parties, wanted them to work harder and faster. Thus Taylor found workers on the shop floor who were what we called in the UAW and the labor movement "rate busters." They would, for personal gain, work at a frenetic pace to prove it could be done in an hour, or a day or even a week (but clearly not a month, a year, or a lifetime), and then that became the standard that management would impose on all the workers—and those who resisted or could not keep up the pace would be fired. As one may critics of Taylor explained, his ideological message required the suppression of all evidence of worker's dissent, of coercion, or of any human motives or aspirations other than those his vision of progress could encompass."
So, as Ricky's life unravels, the filmmakers expose that at least some of his torment is of his own making—as he agreed to be a "rate buster" for personal gain instead of supporting the "stand up" worker who was resisting. Now, he has intensified the very catastrophe on himself and his family.
As his family is disintegrating under the pressure, Ricky comes, hat in hand, to ask Maloney for a week off. Maloney categorically refuses and explains the brutal truth of how The System works.
"At some point every family is going to have a problem. I am Nasty Bastard #1. But I am greatly misunderstood. All the rage, the complaints, the anger, the hate, I soak them all up. I use it as fuel. And with that energy I create a protective shield around this depot that has the best performing figures.
Want to know why I am #1? Have any of these customers genuinely asked you how you are? They couldn't' give a shit if you fall asleep at the wheel and go head on into a bus. All they care about is price, delivery, and the item in their hand. All of this gets fed back into this black box (the computer that details every transaction, time, and profit.) That box is in competition with all the other Black Boxes all over the country.
That's what determines the contracts. This box decides who lives and who dies. I want Apple, Samsung, Amazon, and Zara for my drivers and your families. This place may look like a shithole but the depot is a goldmine. The shareholders should erect a statue to me, Maloney, Patron Saint of Nasty Bastards…You want a day off. It will cost you 100 pounds a go."
Maloney's soliloquy about the brutal truth of capitalism reminds me of another of the great political monologues in film history—that of Colonel Philippe Mathieu, the murderous leader of the French counter-insurgency in Gilles Pontecarvo's Battle of Algiers. At a press conference in Algeria, Mathieu confronts the hypocrisy of the liberal French press who support colonialism but question the use of torture and terror against civilian populations.
Is it legal to set off bombs in public places? No, gentlemen, believe me. It is a vicious circle. We could talk for hours to no avail because that is not the problem. The problem is this: the FLN (Front de Liberation Nationale) wants to throw us out of Algeria and we want to stay.
This is a war. Do you want the French to leave Algeria? If you do, fine, but if you don't, don't judge me for the methods I use to meet our common objectives. We are here for that reason alone.
We are neither madmen nor sadists. Those who call us fascists forget the role many of us played in the Resistance. Those who call us Nazis don’t know that some of us survived Dachau and Buchenwald. We are soldiers. Our duty is to win. Therefore to be precise, it is my turn to ask a question. Should France stay in Algeria? If your answer is still yes, then you must accept all the consequences.
In Sorry We Missed You and The Battle of Algiers the brutal honesty of those in charge of the system challenges the audience to ask if they are complicit in the abuses they claim to find appalling. For aren't we the ones who want our products on time if not earlier, who complain to "customer service" if our same-day delivery is next day or even late at night.
Aren't we the ones who ask Amazon Prime to give us free shipping on a box of tea bags and then order a box of shoelaces three hours later without even combining the orders or giving a damn about the ecological crimes in the new life-in-a-package-at-our-front-door culture.
When the Bastard in Chief tells Ricky that the fucking customers just want their package and don't give a shit if you crash your truck into a bus, are you, my gentle reader, and all of us, among the very assholes they are ridiculing.
Sorry We Missed You portrays working class life in beautiful complexity for as Loach explains, "The politics are embedded into the characters and the narrative, which is a more sophisticated way of doing it." The dialogue and character development of the family are obviously based on years and decades of truly listening to the ideas of working people.
The film is, in its own way, a tribute to working class life as the noble family tries it best to survive in the maelstrom of declining capitalism. As Abbie and Ricky are laying in bed sharing a moment of intimacy, tenderness, despair, and exhaustion trying to figure out what to do, Ricky observes, "I never thought things would be so difficult, Abbie, it seems as everything is out of whack."
Later, Ricky, in a moment of rage at Seb, imposes the ultimate penalty, taking away his cell phone that drives the boy into frenzy. Abbie, in defending Seb says, “His phone is his life, it has all his art, all his friends."
As Ricky declines even further, he begs, "Abbie, what are we doing to each other?”
Her answer, "I don't know."
Their beautiful kids, who despite their rebellion love him to death, literally try to throw themselves in front of that horrible van in a desperate effort to get things back to "where they used to be." And yet, in our present world the role of nostalgia is terrifying. “Can't we go back to when it was great again” (and of course it never was) the kids ask, and it to me brings back the fascist appeal of Make America Great Again that both Reagan and Trump exploited.
Sorry We Missed You is not the Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner where Tom Courtenay stops in his tracks as a gesture of defiance against capitalist privilege. It is not Norma Rae where Sally Fields jumps up on a table in a textile mill with the sign, "Strike." It is a film of political exposure and outrage and that is more than enough. Sorry We Missed You is trying to explain capitalism’s moral and structural disintegration—and it succeeds in the most brilliant and painful way. Go see the film with the goal of learning, empathizing, and then finding something to do that is relevant and effective.
Ken Loach has spent his entire life as a participant in the social movements that his films demand. In a brilliant political statement that explains the drive of his political films well into his 80s, he explained his rationale for rejecting The Order of the British Empire (OBE) given to prominent artists and public figures,
"It's all the things I think are despicable: patronage, deferring to the monarchy and the name of the British Empire, which is a monument of exploitation and conquest. I turned down the OBE because it's not a club you want to join when you look at the villains who've got it."
Eric Mann, a veteran of the Congress of Racial Equality, Newark Community Union, Students for a Democratic Society and the United Auto Workers New Directions Movement has been a protagonist in 2 documentary films about his organizing work—Tiger by the Tail by Michal Goldman and Bus Riders Union by Haskell Wexler. He regularly reviews films for his weekly radio program, Voices from the Frontlines, on KPFK/Pacifica in Los Angeles. He and Channing Martinez run the Strategy and Soul Film Theater in South Central Los Angeles at 3546 Martin Luther King at the historic corner of King and Crenshaw Boulevards. He welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org