This Halloween, millions of dollars will be spent by audiences seeing Saw IV, part of a long series of horror movies placed in the controversial “torture-porn” sub-genre. Many have theorized that these torture based horror films have been exploiting subliminal fears the American public has about the type of torture that has occurred in places like Abu Ghraib. Gavin Hood’s new film Rendition has nothing to do this idiotic sub-genre, it challenges these controversial tactics head on.
The film is about the CIA’s controversial practice of “extraordinary rendition.” With this practice the CIA essentially kidnaps terror suspects and transports them to foreign countries where they are subjected to interrogations involving torture to gather intelligence. The film tells the fictional story of Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally), an Egyptian ex-patriot living in America who falls victim to this practice. Shortly after a bomb goes off in an unnamed Middle Eastern country, El-Ibrahimi is captured at an air-port on his way home from a trade conference in Cape Town and is moved to another unnamed country. There he is interrogated by a man named Abasi Fawal (Igal Naor). claiming he received calls from the terrorist behind the bombing. Inexperienced CIA analyst Douglas Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal), who’s boss died in the bombing, witnesses this with increased skepticism as to El Ibrahimi’s guilt.
Meanwhile, El-Ibrahimi’s American wife, Isabella Fields El-Ibrahimi (Reese Witherspoon), is extremely worried when her husband fails to come home his conference. She goes to an old friend Alan Smith (Peter Sarsgaard) working as her senator’s aid, he tries to convince this senator (Alan Arkin) to pressure Head of Intelligence Corrine Whitman (Meryl Streep) to bring El-Ibrahimi home.
Meanwhile, the Abasi Fawal’s teenage daughter Fatima (Zineb Oukach) find’s herself in a relationship with a boy named Khalid (Moa Khouas), whose brother appears to have terrorist ties.
That’s a lot of characters and storylines to handle, and the film doesn’t quite juggle them perfectly. The film’s advertising suggests that the film centers around Reese Witherspoon’s character, this isn’t really true. Witherspoon really doesn’t have much more screen time than the rest of this large ensemble. There could probably be an interesting film that focused entirely on any one of these stories, but when they are all together it feels a bit uneven. For instance, the story about Fatima and Khalid worked pretty well and ended with a neat twist, but ultimately was not connected with the rest of this very well at all. It feels like another separate movie.
Some of the performances here work better than others. Streep is up to her usual standards, as is Alan Arkin. Omar Metwally also does a very good job with his physically demanding role. J. K. Simmons, famous for role on TV dramas like “Law & Order” and “Oz,” is also a very nice presence in his small role. Peter Sarsgaard isn’t as good as any of the above mentioned, but he isn’t really weak either, and neither are Zineb Oukach or Moa Khouas as the two young Arabs.
Reese Witherspoon however, finds herself overacting, a lot. In many ways she seems to be trying way too hard to get another Oscar. When she finds herself screaming at people in desperation it gets a bit laughable. Jake Gyllenhaal is in the odd position of being a bit too well cast here. His character generally comes off as naïve and confused, a character type he’s played a few too many times. If the character was played by someone who was cast against type this would have been more bearable, with Gyllenhaal it feels like a bit too much.
There has been a recent trend of ambitious films coming out of Hollywood with earnest messages about important issues. Rendition, in many ways looked like it would be an extreme version of this, that it would be a movie that would push its message at the audience in an absolutely invasive way. Is this the case with the movie? Well, sort of; your enjoyment of the movie will probably be directly proportional to how much you demand subtlety. The movie’s politics are in no way a mystery; it deals with political issues directly and sugarcoats nothing. I personally didn’t see this as a problem. Admittedly I agreed with the film’s politics before I entered the theater, and wasn’t looking at it with much skepticism.
That said, it isn’t as biased as it may appear. The movie does explore the arguments that defend the policy of extraordinary rendition and tempts the audience to agree with them. The film mentions that the policy was created under Clinton, and generally avoids other partisan issues. The movie’s ultimate message is that extraordinary rendition is a policy that denies people their human rights and that torture is cruel and unusual. This wasn’t something I really needed to see movie in order to learn, but that’s not a huge problem, even choir members liked to be preached to sometimes. But, again, if you are looking for a subtle and sophisticated delivery of this message you’re going to the wrong movie.
The movie generally worked well enough despite some definite flaws for most of its running time, but the narrative really falls apart in the last twenty minutes or so. The conclusion feels rushed and simplistic. The sub-plot with Fatima and Khalid proved itself to be tangential and unworthy of the screen time invested in it. There are a handful of loose ends, one of them particularly maddening, and the resolution generally felt anti-climactic.
The film was directed by Gavin Hood, director of the South African film Tsotsi, which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language film in 2005 for which he gave a memorably enthusiastic acceptance speech. I wasn’t a huge fan of Tsotsi, it was a good film worth seeing, but I’m not sure I would have given it that Oscar. Still, he was a director that caught my eye. This film is a step down from Tsotsi, but I’m still interested in Hood. He seems to have a pretty decent grasp of the language of film. The technical aspects of this film are not overly noteworthy, but they work well for the film. The editing is particularly nice.
Rendition has an important message, but is that enough to make it worthy? No, not really, but this does have more to offer than that. The story is pretty good until the problematic ending, and the unneeded sub-plot works well enough despite its uselessness. The message is very clear and has already been pretty clear to anyone who’s read a newspaper lately. Some of the performances are a bit iffy as well. For the most part this is a thoroughly competent piece of work; it just doesn’t quite make it.
**1/2 out of four