The Reeler


October 18, 2007


Discourse on U.S. torture policies less cogent -- and entertaining -- than it thinks

"I fear you speak upon the rack, where men enforced do speak anything."
-- Portia, The Merchant of Venice

When a character begins quoting Shakespeare within a film, I tend to think that someone, somewhere along the way, ran out of ideas. When the quote is used to sum up the entire ethos of the film, which in the case of Rendition is clear from the outset, then uselessly muddled to support a couple of flimsy sub-plots, only to be made clear again in the third act (see above) by CIA agent Douglas Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal) by way of Bill Shakespeare, "Well, duh," is more along the lines of what I am thinking.

My frustration with Rendition sprouts mainly from its pockets of cogent engagement with the topic of torture, the current political climate, rampant violations of constitutional rights and the dogs that D.C. politicians are willing to put in this particular fight, bred for maximum professional gain. There is a smart, piercing film in there somewhere, and it is evident in every interaction between good wife Isabella (Reese Witherspoon), her ex-boyfriend and current senatorial aide Alan Smith (Peter Sarsgaard) and the senator who could help if he wanted to, played by Alan Arkin. Isabella's husband, an Egyptian-born American named Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally) doesn't return from a trip to South Africa and disappears even from the flight record. Isabella appeals to her ex for help locating him, and Alan learns a bit more than he cares to about the system he's working within.

Witherspoon straps on the same pregnant belly Angelina Jolie must have worn to pace over her missing husband in this summer's A Mighty Heart, though she can't quite summon the same tense, shit-kicking indignation; I kept waiting for her to blow those blonde bangs up with a puff of exasperation. A Mighty Heart's strict timeline might have helped here, in fact, as it is hard to tell how much time has passed after Anwar's deportation to a secret prison; Isabella seems awfully calm for someone whose husband has disappeared for what may be days or weeks without a trace. Torture also figures into Michael Winterbottom's story of Daniel Pearl, where suspects are tortured in Karachi and end up rendering information critical to the case. The scene is handled with grim, matter-of-fact efficiency, and the film refuses to take a side, passing it for what it is into the hearts and minds of the audience.

Where Rendition gets confused is in its prurient insistence on prolonged torture scenes of the positively hapless Anwar, who is suspected of aiding a bombing "somewhere in North Africa" that killed Freeman's partner. Torture, like abortion, is an incredibly complex, divisive, often image-driven issue. It is also a semantic juggernaut being ridden for all it is worth by the current administration, and the machinations on that score at home, courtesy of Sarsgaard and Co., are far more interesting than watching the poor naked man get waterboarded by a giant local named Abasi (Igal Naor) while Gyllenhaal looks on behind a mask of sheer, eye-rolling, dyspeptic disgust. Dude doesn't know anything! Move on! Or watch a good documentary (such as The Prisoner: Or How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair) on the subject instead!

The most interesting aspect of Rendition is its application of the personal to almost all of the vendettas being carried out either as a matter of public (i.e. secret) policy or religious fanaticism: Freeman (described as a 9/12 enlistee to the CIA, already ascribing the fires of vengeance to his vocation) wants payback for the man who died in his lap; young Khalid, in a distracting and showy subplot, joins a terror cell to avenge the death of his brother; Isabella gets Alan's attention because she slept with him in college and he may still be hot for her pregnant ass; and Corinne Whitman (Meryl Streep in a peach-colored bob, all curled bangs and sheathed fangs) just wants to get through a black-tie function for the goddamn orphans of Rwanda without being bum-rushed by haughty constituents. It's not a governmental or even ideological machine that carries the film's violent actions out -- those machines depend on the various and intensely personal motivations of the people down at the end of the line, telling themselves that this is not necessarily the right thing to do, but the thing they must do.

Director Gavin Hood seems to get lost in the loosely woven-and-bound motivations of his many characters, however, so that few, with the exception of Sarsgaard, end up satisfying. Even Gyllenhaal gains no traction as the conflicted, shot-pounding American authority figure way out of his depth. This particular rendition of the United States's ticky-tacky stance on counterterrorism, coercive interrogation, torture and unlawful detention never fully connects with its subject, favoring professional martyrdom and a subdued emotional payoff over building a convincingly complex, intelligent argument full of passion and discourse. Torturing innocent people is awful -- yes, of course -- but what else? I bet Shakespeare could have put it just so.

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