The filmmaker does a phenomenal job of setting up this world and its characters in a natural-seeming way, smuggling mountains of factoids into what are successfully positioned as conversations that could actually happen. Notice, for instance, the long scene between Ray and Felix in a neighborhood coffee shop—a Christopher Nolan-level info dump that feels organic because of how it’s written and performed: as if it’s just a couple of guys jawing over lunch. Once Ray gets into the woods, Hutton repeats this trick in conversations between Ray and other CABLRS (including Madeline Wise’s Anna, a labor activist who’s trying to recruit people for a union). Because Ray is new to this job and this terrain, it makes sense that he’d be asking so many questions.
It’s a clever storytelling trick that’s perfect for the film as well as for its leading man. Imperial is a 1970s style character actor/lead who has some of the beefy neurotic Everyman energy that Philip Seymour Hoffman and James Gandolfini used to radiate in their indie film projects. We learn and grow (and grow angrier) with Ray as the extent of the corporation’s evil comes into sharper focus, and the actor lets us feel Ray’s moral and political awakening rather than constantly indicating it.
The CABLR processes have been fully imagined as well. Hutton draws on news reports about the blandly sinister expansionist attitude of Google (there’s an equivalent of Google’s useless-in-retrospect “Don’t be evil” mantra) as well as tales of Amazon’s exploitation of drivers and warehouse workers (CABLRs carry handheld devices that chirp at them to “challenge your status quo!” and warn them that they’re going off-route or that they shouldn’t stop because they haven’t earned a rest yet). Spidery drones soar or hover overhead, watching workers’ progress and getting ready to drop replacement cable bundles or new monitoring droids. I’m guessing that we’re five years away from all this stuff being common. Oh, hold on, there’s a robot at my door, I’ll be right back.
Unfortunately, even as “Lapsis” exceeds your wildest expectations for low-budget sci-fi world building, it doesn’t do as much with those details as one might wish. There’s a conspiracy wrapped inside of all the enigmatic rushing-around, and once all that moves to the center of the story (about two-thirds of the way through the film’s compact, 105-minute running time) a bit of the specialness leaks out of the project. This is partly due to the fact that the main characters finally exercise some agency and start to seem like more typical studio-level science fiction characters who are on the brink of exposing the truth, sticking it to The Man and effecting real change, but by that point, the film has done such an outstanding job of cultivating a low-level, vaguely Kafka- or “Brazil“—like sense of grinding yet hilarious despair that it feels weird and false when we’re not in that headspace anymore. It’s as if somebody had sculpted a perfect death’s head mask and then turned the corners of the mouth up with a Sharpie.
Still: what a debut! If you made a Venn diagram of influences that included Ken Loach working-class-rage pictures like “Sorry We Missed You” or “I Daniel Blake,” Boots Riley’s “Sorry to Bother You,” Alex Cox’s “Repo Man,” and Mike Judge’s “Office Space,” “Lapsis” would land smack-dab in the middle. That’s a hell of a great spot for a first time feature to be in. No wonder it doesn’t know what to do with itself.
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