Four LionsComedy/drama, rated R
In Four Lions, a disparate gaggle of aspiring Muslim terrorists living in Britain have one thing in common: unhappiness with their lot in life, intensified by a big dose of general ineptitude. Each has his own reason for membership in this particular brotherhood, and together they are hilarious, a comic tour-de-force, 2010's funniest cinematic terrorists, until they blow people up. The makers of this dark comedy, including director Christopher Morris, are in full control of their tone, and it would be as unwise to assume the film is a comedy about funny, violent Muslims as it would be to assume it's a skewering of anti-Muslim fear and bias. Though the Sundance hit has been compared to This Is Spinal Tap and referred to as though it is a mockumentary, Four Lions is a dramatic narrative with just enough of the ridiculous and the sublime to expose the danger in the arguments around terrorism and the widespread assumptions about Muslims around the world, regardless of individual Muslims' personal stances on the matter of jihad and/or their level of knowledge of and affection for their own religion.
For at least a few of the protagonists, support for jihad is comparable to the street cred one might gain in America by joining a gang; there are references to rapper Tupac and debates about who among them is 'most al-Qaida.' Barry (Nigel Lindsay), a lower-class Brit and Muslim convert, believes he is the most al-Qaida. He also thinks a mosque would make a good terrorism target because it would radicalize the moderate Muslims into jihad—a theory containing more than a dash of the race-war philosophy that underpinned the Manson Family murders. Omar (Riz Ahmed) refuses to make a mosque the target of their suicide mission, which leads to several arguments between the group's two would-be leaders. It is revealed that Barry takes out a sexually sadistic streak on new recruits while Omar is trapped between the piety of his family of origin—his brother shades his eyes when Omar's wife is in the room—and life within his own family, which does not seem to adhere to the same kind of gender restrictions. He is troubled by contemporary Western culture's excesses and by what he sees as its hatred of Muslims. When he is called to a training camp in Pakistan, he learns how careless and unfocused his group is, and though he is basically booted back to England, with the puppy-like Waj (Kayvan Novak) in tow, he returns hardened and ready for martyrdom, a goal his wife fully supports.
In the United States, though we have experienced a few major terrorist attacks, we have not yet had to suffer the ongoing threat of suicide bombers targeting public transportation and events, though the argument could be made that residents of our crime-plagued urban neighborhoods have some insight into what it is like to live with the probability of random fatal violence touching their lives more than once. The ethnic, cultural, and socioeconomic factors at play in an American city, however, are not the same as those factors at play in a British city. A direct parallel cannot be drawn, for instance, between the history of slavery and civil rights in America and the history of Muslims in England. The Bloods-versus-Crips-style street-cred jihad supposedly represented in Four Lions is obviously absurd, but the take-away here is that some disaffected young Muslims nonetheless feel connected to famous, deceased American rap stars. Also made clear is the fact that not all Muslims are the same, and there's a good chance that the people in charge of fighting terrorism are often looking at the wrong ones, missing the true motive for certain acts of terrorism. Ideology and fanaticism play significant roles in the film, and though it might not be possible to see a situation from every angle, there is the world that we desire (the world that adheres to our beliefs about 'right' and 'wrong') and the world that is—a world in which jihad is seen as a credible option for one's future, especially if one is already assumed to be a terrorist anyway. All is not fun and games in Four Lions. The terrorists are not redeemed; their mission is not justified. The movie does not ask you to pity the men or to sympathize with them, but there is much beauty in each man's experience, especially Omar, Waj, and Fessal (Adeel Akhtar)—the saddest of the bunch, saddled with the care of his mentally ill father. The acting is natural and elegant, which makes the comic elements sing and the dramatic turns all the more believable. Ahmed's portrayal of Omar earned him a British Independent Film Award nomination for best actor, and Novak was nominated for best supporting actor. To paraphrase Homer Simpson, it's funny because they're stupid. But stupid and dangerous aren't mutually exclusive (to wit: Homer Simpson, working in a nuclear power plant), and in comedy, these days, it seems nothing is off-limits. It would be easy to dismiss Four Lions as just another tasteless comedy reveling in cultural stereotypes while mongering fear and calling itself ironic, but it's a much smarter movie than that, made for a much smarter audience.
This review originally appeared in Pasatiempo on 01/14/2011