In late capitalism, at least according to Ken Loach, the gig economy is like Kool-Aid for people struggling in an increasingly cutthroat labour market.
In the case of unemployed father of two Ricky (Kris Hitchen), the individualist rhetoric of ‘working for yourself’ is certainly a potent lure after years of hard grafting in manual jobs with meagre rewards.
He finds work as a courier in Loach’s Sorry We Missed You, a title inspired by the calling cards left when packages can’t be delivered.
The film begins in a job interview where he is trying to impress his future boss — depot manager and self-proclaimed “patron saint of nasty bastards” Maloney. He describes spending years working with blokes who were either lazier or less skilled than he is, and welcomes the opportunity to work at his own, presumably superior pace.
Little does he know.
Ricky thinks he’ll be his own boss — but the system is really in charge. (Supplied: Icon/Joss Barratt)
No sooner does Maloney take him on, than Ricky has the sobering realisation that, although the company takes a large cut of his profits, he is individually liable for any mishaps and has to fork out for start-up costs — including a new van he can barely afford.
You feel like yelling at the screen “Get out!”.
But this being late-career Loach, he’s soon completely trapped — beholden to a carrot on a stick that never gets any closer.
The 83-year-old British director’s last film, the 2014 Cannes Palm d’Or winner I, Daniel Blake, took aim at an overburdened welfare state clogged in red tape and administered by staff spouting the managerial rhetoric of denial and buck-passing.
Ken Loach says the film was prompted by conversations with gig economy workers at food banks. (Supplied: Icon/Joss Barratt)
Sorry We Missed You would make for a fascinating double feature. It’s a horrific postcard from a private sector where spin and double speak are also rife.
To call it Orwellian would be kind.
Early on, Maloney goes out of his way to avoid using any language that suggests the company might be responsible for its workers — “You don’t get hired here”, he says, “you come on board. We call it on-boarding. You don’t work for us. You work with us.”
It’s one of several scenes in the film that have a darkly comic dimension, that all rely on an impeccable performance from semi-professional actor and real-life policeman Ross Brewster.
As the depot boss, his muscular frame and shaven head cut an intimidating figure. But it’s not his physical stature that emanates authority, so much as the power of his argument. At least initially.
Depot boss Maloney (Ross Brewster) does not want to hear complaints. (Supplied: Icon/Joss Barratt.)
Loach’s longtime screenwriter Paul Laverty has written a slippery, memorable antagonist in Maloney, who reacts to Ricky’s increasingly desperate trajectory in reasonable, even empathetic tones.
He gets a monologue that resembles a rousing vision statement, too, in which he uses evocative, vaguely magical language to explain why his depot is more successful than any other in the city, painting a picture of the place as a citadel of discipline and infallibility.
The reality, of course, is pretty straightforward exploitation.
While racing around the city on his delivery run, Ricky carries a plastic bottle for toilet breaks and uses a scanner dubbed “the gun” that constantly monitors his progress. It’s a Taylorist dystopia of never-ending surveillance.
At home in his cramped terrace house, meanwhile, there are other pressures. Son Seb (Rhys Stone) is skipping school and doing graffiti, completely uninspired by any conventional future open to him.
Ricky responds to the boy’s nihilism by parroting the same optimistic jargon he’s heard at work, but Seb sees through it.
Abbie (Debbie Honeywood) is also under increasing pressure in her work as a carer. (Supplied: Icon/Joss Barratt)
Ricky’s wife Abbie (Debbie Honeywood) is doing her best to shoulder the parenting, but she’s also facing stress in her work life as a home carer grappling with shrinking budgets and tighter schedules.
Her industrial isolation is highlighted in a scene where a regular patient tells her about her past as a trade unionist, showing photos of miners’ strikes that offer a glimpse of working-class solidarity.
For her and Ricky, such experiences of collective support are almost non-existent.
The family unit is perhaps the only collective buffer from the pressures of the outside world, which makes Seb’s rebellion so poignant.
But even a sunny day where Ricky takes his young daughter out in the van ends on a disheartening note, with a reprimand for disobeying company regulations.
Newcastle local Katie Proctor was chosen to play Liza Jane after the casting team visited her school. (Supplied: Icon/Joss Barratt)
It’s a gloomy picture, but the film’s criticism of economic injustice is not the only take away. Laverty’s script contains a touch of humanist moralism, too. Ricky is not a bad man, but he’s deluded, and the source of that delusion is his sense of superiority.
While his wife suffers at her work through no fault of her own, Ricky might have avoided some of his woes had he been less conceited and less ambitious.
In a different film, he might have been painted as a heroic optimist defying the odds, but Loach’s is a cautionary tale of overreach.
The powerful climax — which arrives with roller-coaster momentum — underlines Ricky’s demise with visceral physicality. It’s not a spoiler to say his body bleeds and his nerve endings scream pain, but for the system, his humanity is irrelevant. He is a cog in the machine.
Sorry We Missed You is in cinemas from December 26.