Friends J+B were at the MIFF screening last night and thought that it was very funny and effective – a HOT. I have a preview pass to the film in August, so I’ll be interested to see whether my views agree with Yalin or J+B. Thanks Yalin!
Let me preface this review by saying that I do not lack a sense of humour but I don’t believe one can boil down the intricacies of home-grown terrorism into a comedy.
The truth is that Morris’ presentation of his characters in Four Lions does not constitute a dark comedy; it is just a bad film. It completely omits the psychological, social and religious background that would be necessary to develop the mindset of a terrorist. I urge anyone, who is inclined to find out, to read Shiv Malik’s article on the issue over at Prospect Magazine, which is well researched and written.
Morris, on the other hand, implies that the making of a terrorist is to be laughed at, which doesn’t make the situation any more tolerable or funny for that matter. It is just dangerous. As much as I love escapism, this is one film that is so disconnected from its characters and their community that it doesn’t just escape the issue but rather misrepresent it.
Morris’ TV background glares throughout the film and its handling of the central issue. It picks up with the assumption that the four main characters have decided to be jihadists and never bothers to explain why. This assumption and treatment may work well for TV productions, but it just doesn’t fly high on the big screen. Two-dimensional characters cannot exhibit the urgency required to sustain a feature-length film, especially one that deals with a tough topic like terrorism. Morris’ characters start and end the same. They do not learn or grow; they do not change for better or worse. They have no real incentive to have become who they are or continue down their path, nor do they exhibit any identity confusion or have any issues in their life that would push them to pursue jihad. All we know is that they are all rather stupid, except for Omar, played by Riz Ahmed.
Omar is the ‘brains’ of the group. He’s the one who edits their ridiculous videos, the abundance of which says more about their narcissism than their dedication to the ideals they are fighting for. The others are less rounded, if you can call Omar a well-rounded character that is, where their main character trait is their naiveté. They come off as simpletons frankly, and the viewer gets to find out nothing more about them. We have no idea about their families, what they do to earn a living, how they have come to be friends with Omar, etc.
The worst script flaw though is related to the 5th recruit, a young Pakistani guy whose first appearance in the film ignites a sense of thoughtful commentary. It is the only moment in the film where Morris says something, but then true to form, he later degrades this one single moment of potential revelation by having him become one of the jihadists.
Despite its focus on unintelligent humour, Four Lions attempts to pull some dramatic strings towards the end and show a hip attitude towards violence a la Tarantino, but what might be construed as a cool approach is actually just annoying. The film really feels like a Western attitude towards the complexity of a suicide bomber. If something’s too hard to figure out or understand, people tend to joke around it in an attempt to diminish its importance and their lack of understanding.
Four Lions really feels like it was written by four British friends at a pub, who have no idea about the Pakistani community, the confusion that 2nd generation immigrants face when growing up and how terrorist organizations feed off of this. It is ignorance at its best, and as Thomas Gray says, ignorance is bliss, but it has no part in good film-making.