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‘Sorry We Missed You’ Takes a Buzz Saw to the Gig Economy

Ken Loach made a coronavirus masterpiece back when the gig economy still killed workers, but slowly and out of sight. His new film ‘Sorry We Missed You’ is harrowing.

There is a moment late in Sorry We Missed You, the latest gut-punch of a film from venerable 83-year-old British director Ken Loach, when a uniquely awful American thought crossed my mind: At least Ricky doesn’t have to worry about health insurance.

Because last week, a story broke about a healthy 17-year-old L.A. kid who was turned away from an urgent care facility for lack of insurance only to later die of septic shock. Of course, the young man’s life getting snuffed out for balance-sheet purposes became a national outrage only because he tested positive for the coronavirus. Otherwise, he’d be just one of the American health-care system’s countless preventable deaths.

I don’t know if I was aware that the poor boy’s life had ended before, during or after I streamed Sorry We Missed You last Friday. But the fate of the young and uninsured was definitely rattling around my brain all weekend along with Loach’s latest. The movie debuted at Cannes last year, in a simpler time when the phrase “Wuhan wet market” sounded like a niche RedTube category. Its American release this month, though, feels like an Old Testament prophecy pounded out on the tablets of the 21st-century gig economy — the fictional story of a striving freelance package-delivery guy is as real as it gets. 

Sorry We Missed You has a simple set-up: Ricky spends money his family doesn’t have to buy a delivery van. He’s underemployed going back to the Great Recession of 2008, when he lost his solid construction job and then his home. Ricky will do anything to get out from under the fragile paycheck-to-paycheck existence he lives with his tender wife, Abby (a contract home health-care aide who helps elderly, sick and special-needs patients with meals, conversations, ass-wipings and “tuck-ins”), and two teenagers (rebellious graffiti artist son Seb and diligent daughter Liza Jane). 

It’s an ordinary loving clan stuck on a sub-middle-class hamster wheel, so Ricky decides to “be his own boss” and take charge of getting the family what he believes is a proper home. It’s a normal human yearning, but one that puts Ricky square at the mercy of a global financial system he’s never even considered, let alone been a part of, other than the crash a decade ago. One where the majority shareholders at Parcels Delivered Fast (PDF, a sly nod to Loach’s disdain for the unregulated cyber economy) will get stock buybacks so long as they hit their near-impossible delivery allotment, laid out by a co-worker friend as a mere 14-hours-a-day, six-days-a-week — at least until Ricky reaches the next level and can exploit drivers of his own. 

Nonetheless, Ricky takes the plunge and goes to work for PDF, where his ruthless dickhead of a boss (self-described as the “Patron Saint of Nasty Bastards”) explains it’s “onboarding,” not hiring — “you don’t work for us, you work with us” — and a man creating his own future “separates the fucking losers from the warriors.” 

Still, for a brief time, Ricky’s plan seems to be working. Sure, his every move is monitored by a data “gun” tracking every package, especially the “precisors,” ones customers pay extra to have dropped off at exact times, some within the hour. And yes, he has to deal with cops, snarled roads, urinating in a bottle, angry dogs and the loneliness of the short-distance driver, which he combats on a Saturday by bringing Liza along as a package wingwoman. 

But sorry Ricky, even though you work with PDF, bring-your-daughter-to-work day is against company policy. The mixture of confusion, pain and disdain on Ricky’s face when the joy of shared time, shared company time, with his little girl is denied him is the film’s singular moment, the realization when he knows they’ve got him. Even if he has no idea who they are. 

Ricky’s manifest economic destiny unravels in a hurry. Because he’s sold their car for the van, Abby has to rely on the unreliable bus, so her family and her “clients” (a word she despises) suffer; Seb gets busted shoplifting spray paint, costing his dad a day of work and some $150 for not following replacement driver protocol; and Liza ends up playing the role of peacemaker between her bickering parents. It all comes to an ugly head with an explosive Ricky smacking Seb and taking his iPhone, the son sneaking back in and tagging up the family photos and a pair of missing van keys setting the family back another day’s wages. 

Loach is an open-hearted filmmaker who always revisits stories of people on the margins, everyday blokes and lasses scraping by, going back to his 1967 debut Poor Cow and his 1969 masterpiece Kes. I’m far from a completist, but there’s definitely a humane through line, a commitment to giving society’s true underdogs their cinematic day, in movies like Riff-Raff, I, Daniel Blake and The Wind That Shakes the Barley. If forced to choose an American equal, I would probably pick David Simon. Both men are adept at showing how soul-crushing daily life under the machines of authority and systems of inequality can be, but Loach is much more pronounced in his socialist leanings. 

He’s made exactly one film in the U.S., 2000’s Bread & Roses, in which Adrien Brody tries to organize immigrant workers in L.A. Surprise, surprise, it flopped. Yet it was prescient for his home country. In the 20 years since, British trade unions have gone the American route, stripped away and leaving workers vulnerable to the peaks-and-valleys of global capitalism, be it intentional behind-the-scenes sabotage or a literal virus that finds delivery folk fighting the pandemic on the front lines

The most consistent complaint about Loach is that he lacks subtlety, favoring sledgehammer filmmaking over nuance. Perhaps, but the film world needs bomb-throwers too, especially now. At a frightening time when Instacart workers are forced to strike just to get masks and hand sanitizer, Amazon had to be browbeaten into offering sick pay and billionaires have fucked off to their superyachts while offering pittances of their personal wealth to battle coronavirus, who’s calling out for delicacy? 

To that end, Sorry We Missed You is the story of the workers who just left groceries outside your front door. (Tip extra well!) 

As such, at the movie’s end, Loach reaches for something even more powerful than a sledgehammer — a wrecking ball. While taking a quick bottle piss behind his van’s back doors, Ricky is jumped by three thugs, pummeled for his iPhone, and as a final insult, doused in his own piss. At the emergency room, while waiting to find out if her husband has a punctured lung, Abby learns that he owes PDF a 1,000 pounds for a new data gun. It’s his franchise, but it’s their property. Understandably, she loses it with the Nasty Bastard bossman, wailing, “How does your company get away with treating people like this?” 

The next morning, bruised and battered and against his family’s vehement wishes, Ricky fires up the van and goes to work once more. A month ago, I might have thought this was Loachian overkill. Do we have to punish this decent family to the nth degree? Couldn’t the same point be made in a more common way by, say, having Ricky throw out his back hauling parcels? But a month ago I didn’t know I’d be bringing Pedialyte to multiple COVID-19 victims in my apartment building or helping run a food drive for frontline Brooklyn Hospital workers with my favorite local red sauce joint and noted neighborhood actor Jeffrey Wright. In other words, in our new pandemic reality, there is no such thing as overkill. 

Essentially, Loach made a coronavirus masterpiece way back when the gig economy still killed workers, but slowly and out of sight. Sorry We Missed You is harrowing, the opposite of escapist entertainment, but it’s also the most emotionally resonant movie of 2020. Calling it hopeful is too strong, but Loach has a core belief that together, fingers crossed, family finds a way. 

If not, at least Ricky doesn’t have to worry about health insurance.