Note: For anyone who has not yet seen the film, I am about to spoil it for you. Go watch it and then come back. You only get one chance to experience this film for the first time, and once you know what happens, it’s not something you will easily forget.
There is something thrilling about watching Boots Riley’s 2018 comedy “Sorry to Bother You” with someone who hasn’t seen it. The first-time viewer is unprepared as the major plot twist approaches. You can’t help but warn them ahead of time. You say: “Things are going to get really weird in like 10 minutes,” knowing this will in no way prepare them. And no doubt you told them before the movie even started that something “very strange” happens around the Act Three break. Then you have the incomparable experience of watching the plot twist unfold, knowing what is about to happen while the person next to you has no idea that a horse-human hybrid is about to fall out of a bathroom stall. You glance sideways at them. You wonder how they will react because there is no way to see this and not have a reaction.
For those of you who have not seen the film but continued reading anyway (shame on you), it follows Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield, “Judas and the Black Messiah”) as he begins working at a telemarketing firm. He is quickly successful there and becomes a highly-paid “Power Caller,” which pits him against his friends who are on strike at the company and forces him to choose between his supposed values and his desire to profit off of something he is told he is good at. And since this is a movie with a longer runtime than thirty minutes, he chooses the latter.
Thus begins a series of increasingly questionable business deals. The Power Callers’ greatest client is WorryFree, a company that sells slave labor under the guise of a practical living-slash-working arrangement. The creator and CEO of WorryFree, Steve Lift (Armie Hammer, “Call Me By Your Name”) plans to increase the WorryFree workers’ productivity by — and here’s the twist — giving them a drug that will cause them to mutate into horse-people he calls “equisapiens.” He offers Cassius $100 million to temporarily become an equisapien leader (“The equisapien Martin Luther King Jr.,” according to Steve) while actually keeping other equisapiens from turning against the company. This is the point where Cassius finally refuses and returns to his friends in their fight for justice.
I had the joy of re-watching this film and its plot twist a few weeks ago with a friend who had not seen it before. Watching the already absurd plot leap enthusiastically off the rails while my friend turned to me in confused shock made me remember the first time I saw the film. Particularly, how I discredited this plot twist as “taking things too far.”
It did not help that I watched the movie for the first time with my parents and sister (my parents still respond to my mentioning it with, “Was that the one with the horses? That was bizarre.”) At the time, I agreed with them. From the beginning, when Cassius pulls out counterfeit trophies to sell himself in a job interview, you have to get on board with the lack of subtlety. I liked that, but the twist was too much for me. I thought the writers must not have known where to go with the story and made a dire mistake, adding an uncalled-for Act Three plot twist that ruined a great film.
With my second viewing, I saw that I was wrong. The writers knew exactly what they were doing with this twist, or else they accidentally did something genius. The twist is bizarre, but it is not out of place. It belongs in the film because it is ridiculous. That’s the point. It’s there to show us that the existence of genetically-modified horse-human slaves may not be much more bizarre than anything else that is happening when it comes to capitalism and exploitation. It is cruel and unbelievable, but so is the fact that the telemarketers on strike are attacked by security forces instead of being given a fair wage. So is the moment when, after Cassius goes on television to bring WorryFree’s scheme to light, we see Steve celebrating because the bad press has caused WorryFree’s stock market value to increase exponentially rather than causing any consequences for the company.
The film is a harsh critique of meritocracy, and as viewers who have likely spent our entire lives normalizing its problems, we need this plot twist to pull us away from any remaining thoughts that these problems are “okay” or “normal.” We need something so bizarre and terrifying that we have no choice but to accept that the system that caused it is not a good thing.
Looking back on this film, the story could not have worked without the plot twist. The lack of clues of what is to come causes a shock. This can lead to an unfair critique that the twist is misplaced or unnecessary. But it is the introduction of the equisapiens that most explicitly crosses the line between what is merely a part of the world that can be ignored and what is an injustice that must be confronted. It is this which leads the film to its final conclusion that, though it may be nearly impossible to make changes to this unfair system, as Cassius says, “We have to start somewhere.”
Daily Arts Writer Erin Evans can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.