Ken Loach, 2019
The open road is a beckoning, a strangeness, a place where man can lose himself.
– William Least Heat-Moon.
At the heart of Ken Loach’s Sorry We Missed You is an intimate connection between journey and precarity. The film centres around a life in which the journey of self-discovery is replaced by journeys of self-perpetuation; when life becomes a sum of never-ending routes more sacrificial than they are stunning, roads along which we travel but do not move forward.
The mythology of the ‘journey’, from gap years to coming-of-age, is primarily about individual freedom: a process of discovery, experience, pleasure, spiritual exploration and mobility. Jack Kerouac foresaw a ‘rucksack revolution’, a generation resisting mass consumer culture and liberating themselves from the demand to work, produce and consume. The thrill of the road played a central role in the creation of youth culture and the desire to leave things behind to discover something richer, deeper, better. But what about when the mythology falls apart — the other side of the horizon — when the road becomes a form of restriction, the journey a treadmill and the motor a prison?
In Sorry We Missed You, we are introduced to the Turners: Ricky, Abbie, and their children, Seb and Liza Jane, a family struggling in the aftermath of the 2008 Global Financial Crisis. They planned to get a mortgage for a house but lost substantial savings tied up in Northern Rock. With the housing ladder torn rung from rung and the negative effects of government austerity seeping into British society (particularly the North), the Turners are forced to re-evaluate.
Ricky, having lost his job in the construction industry, finds a new opportunity as a delivery driver on behalf of Pastels Delivered Fast (PDF), a franchise run by the hardened Gavin Maloney. He is self-employed, running his own business, working with the depot and not for the depot. In hindsight, we know that Ricky is embroiled in the cannibalism of the gig economy, but there is an allure to the message of self-redemption — the pull of the road. Ricky buys his own van, avoiding the costs of rental, but sells his wife Abbie’s car in the process. She is forced to take the bus to appointments for her carer job — conducting her own gruelling journeys.
At the depot, Ricky is introduced to his scanner, his gun, his black box. This piece of equipment is precious and very expensive: it plans his route, sets out his estimated times, tracks his van, beeps if he’s away for more than two minutes. The scanner, not the people, Ricky is told, is the heart of the depot. He must never miss his precise time slots; he must provide a replacement driver if ill; he is given an empty plastic bottle to piss in (just in case). The incentive: if he does well today, he’ll get a better, more lucrative, route tomorrow. Ricky must become his journeys and nothing else.
Loach depicts a sinister world, Ricky’s world, in which ominous objects dictate and track movement, in which doorstep abuse is the extent of social interaction, in which falling asleep in front of the telly is the only form of relaxation, in which there is no personal, human expression in the workplace or at school. Even the escape of the road becomes a form of deteriorating slavery — a 12-hours-6-days-a-week slug along the boulevard of broken dreams.
Pastels Delivered Fast does not care about people, they care about packages. This is a dangerous and deadly motto. Illness is impossible, crises inconvenient. Ricky is not just hurried, individually to blame for his inability to slow down, he lives in a context of vicious estimation. Everything is plotted. The motorways and roundabouts become a grid of alienation, soundtracked by the whir of drivers crushed into piano keys. Your family doesn’t need to know where you are when the customers do. You will be back late, dinner will be in the microwave, your kids will know your voice but not your presence.
Ricky’s story is representative of countless real-life examples. University College London published research in 2018 legitimising the link between the expanding gig economy and an increase in health and safety risks on the roads: men and women falling asleep at the wheel, cutting up on roundabouts, running red lights, taking risks with their lives in order to survive.
Two notable journeys, past and present, interrupt the dangerous deliveries with glimpses of humanity. More than halfway through the film, Abbie tells the story of how she met Ricky. She explains how he used to take trips to the raves in Morecambe, to see her, travelling from Manchester in his ‘crappy little van’. She doesn’t delve any deeper than that, but we can imagine what it must have been like — the explosions of purple and red, the spasmodic, jerking, impossibly rhythmic movements, the feeling of being privy to the heartbeat of the underworld.
The interjection of this story emphasises some of what is missing in the present. Ricky and Abbie have lost so much: lust or love, experience and pleasure, the thrill of music, people and possibility. Desire has dissolved and sex has lost its spontaneity; Abbie puts it on her to-do-list — and then forgets it anyway. Creativity has been destroyed; Seb’s much maligned graffiti is the only noticeable form of artistic expression in the film. Ricky and Abbie have grown older, and the nature of our journeys obviously changes as that happens, but there’s also a sense in which growing older is conducted in a particular way under the current system. The pressure increases, the needs escalate, and the burden becomes too much. Is it a choice between raves and responsibility? Are we supposed to mourn the loss of the road?
Later in the film, the family gathers around the table for a Chinese takeaway, a powerful moment of communal, full-house fun. The conversations begin to pop with teasing and excited interruption. As the room reaches the point of ecstasy, the phone rings: the family is intruded. Abbie is asked to attend to a client who has been left alone and unable to get to the toilet. She will try and find a taxi. Instinctively, Seb suggests they all go in the van together instead, ‘double bunking’ so there is enough space. It is a rare glimpse of familial love and compassion. As they sing karaoke in the van, it becomes a space of laughter, silliness and joy.
It is a radical, self-sacrificial, scene. But, underneath, there is this feeling of futility, that individual acts of self-sacrificial love don’t change the wider implications of scarcity. Not long after the family arrives outside the house of the client, the film settles back into its suffocating rhythm. Tomorrow, Ricky continues to travel.
The conclusion of the film is sadistically symphonic. The journeys accumulate with only moments of respite. Ricky is assaulted, goes to hospital, has his keys stolen. He slips out of the house, the morning still resuscitating the night, preparing to journey once again. As he turns the ignition, his son runs out to stop him. Seb implores Ricky to rest. In his battered state, with one good eye, he’s going to kill himself when he’s driving. Seb wants his dad as he was before, for everything to be as it was before. Abbie runs out too, Liza watches from the front door. Ricky — yelling — reverses up the street. The family turns in resignation back towards the house. Ricky must go to work. He begins yet another route, sobbing, the sun shining through the window, as the screen fades to black. Does he kill himself? The indication is that he is already dead.