As debased and degrading as the horror subgenre of torture-porn happens to be — and it is, of course, both of those things in the worst way — it’s nevertheless rooted in a perverse fantasy world that obeys its own sick, twisted rules. For instance, a scene where a man is forced by a maniacal serial killer to, say, cut his own face to save his life resides comfortably in the grimy house its built for itself in the writer or director’s wayward subconscious. This is part of what makes Rendition, a political drama, so terrifying and compelling: It deals with kidnapping and torture in the awful and mundane way with which we’ve come to know it, and that’s simply as something that happens to people who get labeled as terrorist threats to national security. One of the most startling moments is when a prisoner, stripped naked for interrogation, is suddenly backhanded by his questioner, a single brutish slap that sends his shackled body tumbling to the ground and echoes through the damp chamber where the man is being held against his will. That’s the horror of Rendition: These aren’t characters in some bizarro slasher flick, but real people, with families, and laws, and souls in danger of rotting. And worse, these kinds of things happen all the time. Director Gavin Hood, in his first U.S. feature, succeeds in driving home the terrible cost of what it means to visit these acts of retribution on our enemies, and to make something foreign and impossible seem feasible and unnervingly close.
Kelley Sane’s screenplay begins with a series of only barely related scenes establishing the core of the film’s broad ensemble, but Hood keeps things moving just enough to prevent them all from feeling too disjointed. In Cape Town, South Africa, Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally), a chemical engineer in the continent on business, places a call to his wife, Isabella (Reese Witherspoon), who’s back in Chicago with their 6-year-old son. He lets her know he’ll be coming home soon, and they chat briefly before parting with a casual but genuine “I love you.” Shifting to an unnamed country in northern Africa, there’s also Abasi Fawal (Yigal Naor), some kind of law enforcement official whose title is either never made clear or perhaps just glossed over. (There’s a lot of info to assimilate.) Abasi’s daughter, Fatima (Zineb Oukach), is tired of her father’s overbearing ways and runs away from home to be with her boyfriend, Khalid (Mohammed Khouas). Finally, there’s the blatantly metaphorically named Douglas Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal), a CIA analyst in Africa who’s having a fling with a coworker and seems to be a genial if reserved “pen-pusher.” But what brings them together is a bombing in an Africa square that’s meant for Abasi and winds up killing a couple dozen citizens and one American CIA agent, elevating Douglas’ job title and profile and drawing the attention of the feds back home.
Which is where Anwar comes in, and where the film stops being a story about current events and starts being one about how those events change us. Anwar’s name and phone number are flagged as having possibly been in contact with the terrorist organization claming responsibility for the bombing in Africa, and as soon as he lands in Chicago, he’s whisked away through a side door, fitted with a black hood, and taken to a holding room off-site for questioning. The terror in Anwar’s eyes while he fervently pleads his innocence is indescribable, a mix of fear and anger and suspicion, all tainted with a revulsion at his own understanding that these can be bad days for Middle Eastern citizens flying into the States. When Anwar refuses to acknowledge his connection with the attack, he’s flown to Africa on the orders of Corrine Whitman (Meryl Streep), the government official responsible for, among other things, giving the go-ahead to covertly transport suspects out of the country so that they can be questioned away from the eyes of due process. Before long, Anwar winds up in the unfortunate care of Abasi, who’s leading the interrogation, and Douglas, who’s observing for the very first time just what happens in cases like these.
When Anwar doesn’t show up to meet Isabella at the gate, she begins to investigate where he might be and what might have gone wrong, using an old college friend, Alan Smith (Peter Sarsgaard), and his Washington connections to try and track down her husband. Alan is still young and dumb enough to believe that directly confronting an injustice is enough to combat its effects, as evidenced by his attempt to make a big speech about human rights to Whitman, who promptly shuts him down with a curt, “This is a messy business,” before explaining that withholding suspects and questioning them under duress serves the greater good. She even says that several thousand Londoners are alive tonight in their beds tonight because of her, which is where Hood’s film begins to tread the murky waters of being a political film that’s not about partisanship. The London attacks are mentioned, as is the fact that the practice of extraordinary rendition — basically, moving terrorist suspects out of the country of capture in order to question them in environments less monitored for the purpose of gathering intelligence — began under Clinton but took on a whole scary new life after the Sept. 11 attacks, but no mention is made of any political figure who’s been elected or appointed to office in the past six years. Hood is in an understandable bind here, because highlighting the potential problems of rendition has to mean indicting to some degree the political climate that’s birthed it, yet to focus on the politics would be to lose the humanity of the story and shift the film from a compelling character-based drama to a partisan screed.
Thankfully, Hood focuses on the emotional cost of the practice, mining the most out of the relationship between Douglas and Anwar. Gyllenhaal is solid and watchable as the somehow naïve American who’s forced to do some quick growing up, but Metwally is never less than phenomenal in every one of his scenes, mixing fury and nobility with a quiet desperation and an unwillingness to let himself be silenced. The progressively brutal interrogation sequences are tough to watch for their stark believability, and they anchor the movie and define its tone even as Hood interweaves them with Isabella’s investigation and Fatima and Khalid’s dangerous love to come up with something epic, and challenging, and (in the third-act climax) jaw-dropping for its scope and storytelling power.
And yet, it’s unfortunate that Hood’s film, in all its wisdom and grace and skill and power, is forced to remain politically silent to make a political argument. To subject another man to torture, to suffocate or drown him in an effort to squeeze from him some piece of information, is bound to take a devastating toll on the hearts and minds of those pulling the triggers and holding their fellow men’s heads under the water. Rendition deals with a real-life American problem without indicting real-life Americans, and even sets up one of our own as the potential hero. That’s probably the most American thing of all, the paradox that we both inflict these evils upon other humans but also, in the right place and at the right time, stand up for them and say, “This is wrong. To treat someone this way is wrong.” It’s to Hood’s great credit that he also doesn’t overplay whatever potential rush of pride may accompany the sight of an American in the story attempting to do what’s right. Because what kind of society wants to be congratulated for not torturing people? Isn’t that just one of the rules that doesn’t have to be spoken? Rendition isn’t about how a society responds to torture; it’s about the fact that we shouldn’t even be doing it in the first place. Here’s hoping that message makes it safely to the right people.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.Moral and Imperative
Film | October 20, 2007 | Comments ()