Gavin Hood's gripping sophomore outing RENDITION, coming on the heels of his excellent Oscar winning foreign language film TSOTSI, is a multi-story political thriller that feels alive and important. First time screenwriter Kelly Sane has crafted a dense narrative which crosses the globe numerous times and intertwines almost a dozen major characters in a tense, sometimes hectic fashion. Not as academic, or as strong overall, as Stephen Gaghan's recent film SYRIANA, RENDITION is a topical, hot-button thriller with an impressive cast and a nicely calibrated visual style that gathers a terrific head of steam late in the game and leaves you breathless (if momentarily confused) at the finale. Without any overdone politicizing or preaching to the masses, RENDITION takes a serious subject and effectively juggles the conventional demands of the genre while still creating an exciting and somewhat unpredictable story.
The term "extraordinary rendition" refers to an anti-terrorism policy put in place during the Clinton term (the film clearly states this fact) but practiced heavily during the Bush administration (the film doesn't reference Bush, so all of you "that's just liberal Hollywood at it again" people can rest comfortably). Rendition is the process of secretly abducting suspected terrorists, with or without concrete evidence (as long as there is at least a vague connection to terror), flying them out of the United States (because we don't torture people...ha-ha) to a neutral country where they are tortured for information by a different countries government. Pretty cool huh? Problem is, in some cases, the suspected terrorists turn out to have zero connection to actual terrorism, and are viciously tortured for no good reason. It's a complicated process, and not exactly the first idea that comes to mind when one might think of devising a big-budget piece of entertainment. The fact that RENDITION works as well as it does, purely on an entertainment level, is a testament to the strong storytelling abilities of Hood and Sane and the uniformly excellent ensemble cast.
RENDITION centers on a Saudi born American citizen named Anwar El-Ibrahimi, (Omar Metwally, last seen stealing scenes in MUNICH) who is renditioned by an overzealous US senator named Corrine Whitman (Meryl Streep in prime, chilly form) after a terrorist bomb goes off in a middle Eastern country, killing a CIA agent in the process. Ibrahimi, it seems, may have received some phone calls from a suspected terrorist; he of course denies any involvement and pleads his innocence. He's put into the hands of the seemingly sadistic yet ultimately level-headed Abasi Fawal (the excellent Yigal Naor), an interrogator who is used to eliciting information from his suspects through water boarding, electrical shocks, dehydration, etc. Watching over the brutal questioning is CIA operative Douglas Freeman (a quiet Jake Gyllenhaal), a fresh recruit who is more prone to pushing papers than working in the field.
Meanwhile, back in the US, Ibrahimi's very pregnant wife Isabella (Reese Witherspoon) struggles to understand the disappearance of her husband, and cannot grasp why nobody in the state department will give her any assistance in finding her husband. She asks her old college flame Alan Smith (the always natural Peter Sarsgaard), who is now a senator's aide, to see if he can help figure out what happened to her husband. However, Alan's boss, Senator Hawkins (played with relish by Alan Arkin), would rather stay out of the situation. And finally, Fawal's blinded-by-love daughter Fatima (the passionate Zineb Oukach) has entered into a dangerous relationship with a young jihadist-in-training that ties all of the storylines together. Sounds like a lot of plot huh? It is. But RENDITION works as an efficient thriller on the grounds that all of its seemingly disparate storylines blend into one cohesive whole, even with a major narrative twist served up in the film's final moments.
Gyllenhaal's character, maybe intentionally, feels a little underwritten, and his somber demeanor has a way of distancing the audience from his character. But again, that might have been the intention of the filmmakers; by not portraying Freeman as a gung-ho, idealistic spook, he's more of an everyman, and in a way, more accessible to the audience. Gyllenhall, who was better in this year's ZODIAC, still brings some nice touches to the part. Witherspoon spends most of the movie crying and yelling for the release of her husband; it's a one dimensional role that to be honest, doesn't require much more than what's given. Streep and Arkin nail their roles with ruthless glee; their cold, bureaucratic professionalism feels authentic. But the most interesting performances come from the foreigners. As Fawal, Naor cuts an indelible impression of a man consumed by his work and his feelings for his family. It's a layered performance that on the outset appears to be all surface rage and hostility, but as the onion is peeled back, a surprising level of delicacy envelops his performance. Similarly, as Fawal's daughter Fatima, Oukach creates a sympathetic character that the audience is able to latch onto; when the plot kicks into high gear, your stomach turns as the fate of it's characters becomes more evident.
Hood directs with a steady urgency to his images, aided by the excellent cinematographer Dion Beebe (MIAMI VICE, COLLATERAL, CHICAGO) and the fluid editing of Megan Gill (TSOTSI). What's on display is similar to that of a tapestry of sorts; a wide range of different people come together in the quest for truth and in the pursuit of doing the right thing. RENDITION might be, in the end, a little simplified around the hard edges, and yet almost too tricky for its own good. But its persuasive voice can't be denied, and the visceral impact of Hood’s action scenes bolsters the film's flat trajectory with some much needed pizzazz. It's a complicated, densely plotted thriller, ripped from the headlines, and the filmmakers should be applauded for tackling difficult subject matter like this in a time of genuine political unrest. The fact that the film has completely died at the United States box office reflects the lack of desire by the American public to confront real social issues during the course of entertainment. And that's a shame. While not a perfect film, RENDITION gets enough right and does it all with style and class; it's a pity that a brainy film like this can't find an audience.