Entertainment

How to Make Sense of the Big Twist in 'Sorry to Bother You'

sorry to bother you
Peter Prato/Annapurna Pictures

Oh, to be a Lakeith Stanfield character, hapless and well-meaning, but cursed with a knack for stumbling into the dens of nefarious white dudes. Playing Darius on FX's Atlanta, he visits the dusty manse of an ashen-faced lunatic and nearly ends up both victim and patsy in his host's murderous schemes. Playing Cassius "Cash" Green in Sorry to Bother You, Boots Riley's ineffable, uncompromised debut feature film, Armie Hammer talks him into doing lines of cocaine that mutate him into an unfortunate equine destined for a life of ceaseless work. Basically, if Stanfield is in a movie or on TV, expect dark shit to happen to him.

But Darius's traumatic misadventure on Atlanta is just that: Misadventure, singular. Cassius' bad trip in Sorry to Bother You, however, comes out of nowhere and leads to a dystopian journey in which Cassius stares down the brutal logic of capitalism. One moment, Cassius is cajoled into rapping in front of a gaggle of white people eager for an impromptu performance from the lone black dude at Steve Lift's (Hammer) lavish house party. The next, he's blundering through an olive door and into a waking nightmare.

armie hammer stby
Armie Hammer as Steve Lift | Annapurna Pictures

It's a tale as old as time: Lift, enamored of Cassius, invites him to his elegant wood-paneled office to make an offer he can't refuse, and also to do some blow. Cassius takes the blow, but before Lift can make the offer, Cassius goes searching for a urinal to relieve himself, finding instead the fruits of Lift's efforts at splicing man with horse, which, once Cassius has recovered from his initial horror at the discovery, circles back to Lift's unspoken proposal. The twist's effect is a 50,000 watt jolt to the brain that lasts for the rest of the movie and forces us to reconsider every preceding plot point for the sake of comprehension and personal sanity.

Lift's shindig is Sorry to Bother You's fundamental sequence, where Riley shows us details of a world that's familiar, though fictional; it's a vivid, madcap satire of corporate capitalism and the many layers of American racism, and in directly linking the two, it's painfully obvious that to speak about them separately fails to understand the depth of either's problems. Of course "talking white" would propel Cassius to telemarketing's upper echelons. (Stanfield's white voice comes courtesy of David Cross, amplifying his declarative whiteness for profound comic effect.) In this narrative arc you see the union between America's greatest pastimes: bottomless greed and casually ingrained bigotry.

Riley, frontman of the Oakland hip-hop group The Coup, is a career anti-capitalist activist, so it makes sense that this movie would spring from that ideological framework. But the ways in which it brings home its anti-capitalist themes -- using sci-fi horror elements to drive the rest of the story after the shock of the equisapien (that's what the horse-human hybrids are called) reveal wears off -- feel fresh. Sorry to Bother You's strength lies in its ability to maintain the surprising nature of its twists and turns; even when we get to the film's final shot, we're still plagued by two pressing questions: How the hell did we get here? And what the hell did we just watch?

To begin answering that, we have to return to the proposal Lift offers Cassius, which hinges on a substance called WorryFree. Lift's company/indentured servitude machine has created a chemical compound that turns anyone who inhales it into beasts of burden. Lift wants Cassius to ingest that compound himself and live as the "equisapien Martin Luther King, Jr.," as Lift puts it, for five years, in exchange for $100 million and the promise of a cure for his transformation. He figures that Cassius -- in Lift's eyes a loyal go-getter type -- will be easy to control, and thus give him an inside man to keep WorryFree's equisapien workforce placated. Just a mundane American life of extravagant wealth, carried on in willful ignorance of the horrors required to make that life possible.

sorry to bother you
Lakeith Stanfield & Armie Hammer | Annapurna Pictures

Lift is wrong, of course. Cassius, having driven a wedge between himself and his coworkers, friends, and girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson), tries to bring WorryFree down by exposing their secrets to the world, which has the unintended effect of making their stock skyrocket; undeterred, he organizes with his former telemarketing cohorts, sparking a riot in the streets and nearly spelling doom for protesters until the equisapiens arrive to save the day. All's well! The good guys win! Except that the coke Cassius did in Lift's office wasn't coke, but rather the chemical compound, and so the film ends with Cassius sprouting horse nostrils right before Detroit's eyes. He doesn't take Lift's deception lying down, though, and storms the gates of Lift's home, his fellow enraged equisapiens hoofing it behind him.

Riley leaves no hint of unethical transhumanist experiments in Sorry to Bother You's early chapters, so if somehow you manage to predict Sorry to Bother You's equisapien revolution, then congratulations: You're a modern Nostradamus, or you read this story before seeing the movie. Until the moment Lift explains to Cassius the process of turning people into literal work horses, it isn't in the movie. This states the obvious, perhaps, but when most films throw curveballs, we can look back, trace the projectile's arc, and admit that we didn't see it coming because the filmmaker knows how to throw. Weird as this late-stage development may be, it harmonizes with the rest of Sorry to Bother You's thoughts on corporate doublespeak made in service of profit. Lift spins the truth of his equisapien laborers as easily as breathing, a smile always on his face, knowing he can sell the lie to the American people because we let people like him lie to us all the damn time.

Which makes Lift's ultimate fate a stroke of welcome catharsis. But fun as it'd be to see Lift get his ass stomped by a mob of pissed off horsemen, Riley cuts there, leaving us bewildered but energized by what we've seen. You'll need time to pass before the movie's oddities and grotesqueries fully sink in. Riley concocts such strange alchemies and distillations of America under the heel of capitalist greed that connecting the dots between the film's first and second halves proves an exhausting surrealist challenge. But Sorry to Bother You goes full gonzo in support of its rallying cry against capitalism, and that bewilderment is the film's great joy.

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Andy Crump is a contributor for Paste magazine, The Playlist, WBUR's The ARTery, Slant Magazine, The Hollywood Reporter, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. Follow him on Twitter @agracru.