There are filmmakers who get younger as they grow older — against all odds, they become more spry, clear-eyed, muscular, and relevant. Ken Loach, for a long time, made diligent and austere droopy-dog dramas about what used to be called “the working class,” and those films lived on the quiet end of the radar; a few were good, but most of them came and went without a blip. But the times have caught up with Loach, and they have pushed him to the top of his game. He’s 82 years old, and he is now making films that connect, with a nearly karmic sense of timing, to the social drama of our moment.
In 2016, “I, Daniel Blake” took the Palme d’Or at Cannes (the second time Loach had won), but the film’s dramatic immediacy extended beyond that prize. Its tale of a Newcastle carpenter who falls between the cracks of a broken British welfare system anticipated the seismic dislocations of Brexit and Donald Trump’s victory. In England, it was the rare movie that become a flashpoint of public debate (even in Parliament).
And Loach has now done it again. His new film, “Sorry We Missed You,” is another intimate and powerful drama about what’s going on in people’s everyday lives — not just in England, but all over the world. This one, also set in Newcastle, is about a stressed-out family trying to make a go of it in the gig economy, and if God were a publicist He couldn’t have arranged a more perfect coincidence than for the film to be premiering at Cannes a week after the semi-disastrous IPO of Uber. You could argue that that was just one company suffering a surprisingly poor stock performance. But the smart analysis said that behind the numbers lay the perception that Uber was marketing a sizzle that didn’t match the steak. The company has built itself on the notion that its system of independent drivers is a sweet deal for the drivers themselves, when the truth is that it’s a far more insecure and low-paying prospect than advertised.
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In all likelihood, Ricky Turner (Kris Hitchen), the central character of “Sorry We Missed You,” is a man who heard the hype and believed it. Ricky is a carrot-topped bloke who looks to be around 40, but he’s lithe and energetic, and if you peer beneath the slightly weathered face you can still see the kid who grew up going to raves in Manchester.
Ricky is a day laborer who has done plumbing, construction, gardening, you name it; he takes pride in the fact that he’s never been on the dole. But he needs more money than he has (his family is mired in debt), and in the opening scene of “Sorry We Missed You,” he sits in an office being interviewed for the position of delivery van driver for PDF (Parcels Delivered Fast!), a 21st-century company that uses nothing but independent contractors. Maloney (Ross Brewster), the glowering boss who looks like Doc Savage, explains to Ricky how it works, and he hits all the right “empowering” notes. The key one being: Ricky won’t be an employee — he’ll be an owner-driver. He’ll be paid not in “wages” but in “fees” (as if this were somehow better).
But to get started, Ricky has to purchase a windowless white VW Crafter van that requires $1,000 quid down (either that, or rent one from the company for 65 quid a day), and the moment he shows up for his first morning of work, he is made dizzy with all the regulations and protocol, with everything that can go wrong as he struggles to fill his orders over a shift that will last 12 hours. A “precisor” is an order that must be delivered within an hour of the promised time, or there’ll be hell to pay. And make no mistake: The key word is pay — as Ricky learns, every day is a minefield of potential fines.
The first day, he’s got to choose between holding onto a speedy delivery spot or getting a traffic ticket. The scanner that tracks every package also tracks his every move (if he’s away from the van for two minutes, it starts to beep), which makes it a weapon that can be used against him. The technology (GPS, etc.) is supposed to make things easier, but in reality it just increases expectations of efficiency. (He’s given an empty plastic bottle in case he needs to take a pee.) And if Ricky misses even one day of work, he’s responsible for finding a replacement driver. He and the other drivers are the exact opposite of a union: It’s almost part of the design that they compete to the death. So much for the revolutionary promise of “independence.” Ricky is now on a hamster wheel. The gig economy has made him an indentured servant.
That’s an observation folded into every moment of “Sorry We Missed You,” and Loach’s perception of how the gig economy works is at once rigorously journalistic and lived-in. The multi-tasking anxiety of Ricky’s job, of sidestepping the glitches and never messing up (which also means negotiating with crusty British customers who won’t sign where they’re supposed to, or retrieve their ID for a mobile-phone delivery, or take in a package for a neighbor), becomes part of the film’s dramatic texture. In its neorealist way, “Sorry We Missed You” is quite a suspenseful movie.
But the heart of the film is how the high-stress compulsiveness of Ricky’s job begins to eat away at his family’s well-being. He has a tender relationship with his wife, Abby (Debbie Honeywood), a home-care nurse who mostly takes care of old people. She’s part of the gig economy, too, but now she’s got to travel to her clients by bus (Ricky had to sell her car for the down payment on the van), and with the day already stretched too thin, we see her getting more and more frazzled by her clients, who range from the polite to the impossible.
At home, Ricky’s 11-year-old daughter, Liza Jane (Katie Proctor), is a dream, but his teenage son, Seb (Rhys Stone), while not a bad kid, has taken to skipping school and hanging out with friends who have formed a kind of graffiti club (their spray-paint designs are eye-catching in a neo-Keith Haring way). Rhys Stone plays this budding delinquent with a prematurely low voice and sullen self-involvement that’s all too authentic. And so are the tensions that build, step by treacherous step, between himself and his father. It’s not that the two are at war; they’re playing out a battle of priorities that’s all too typical. The trouble is that Ricky, the wage slave without wages, is no longer there at the moment he needs to be.
Loach stages all of this with supreme confidence and flow. He has become, in his way, as supple and popping a dramatist as Mike Leigh. Yet it’s his big-picture vision of the precarious economic forces that are holding our world together — and, increasingly, tearing it apart — that make “Sorry We Missed You” a fraught, touching, and galvanizing movie. We watch it longing for a catharsis, and Loach provides one: It’s Abby’s wrenching conversation, over the phone, with Ricky’s boss, in which she castigates the company for the obscene indifference of its policies. Yet Loach is too good a filmmaker to wrap everything up with a righteous feel-good bow. The message of “Sorry We Missed You” is: Life goes on, and so does work. And so, one hopes, does the renaissance era of Ken Loach.