This political rendering, headlined by Reese Witherspoon and Jake Gyllenhaal, leads audiences into a dank, dark dungeon of pain—and never really lets them out.
The word rendition means, among other things, to "hand over." It can refer to criminals being transferred from one country to another through deportation or extradition, but it can also mean to hold people and question them on foreign soil—where pesky prisoners' rights issues won't get in the way. In 1995, President Bill Clinton authorized the CIA to use rendition when necessary. The CIA was allegedly given even broader scope in the wake of 9/11. And now rendition has become one of the War on Terror's most hotly debated topics.
Rendition, the film, is set in this murky no-man's-land of international law. At the center of the storm sits Anwar El-Ibrahimi, an American chemical engineer with a thriving career, a beautiful family and a problematic cell phone number. The United States government believes Anwar has been taking calls from a notorious terrorist and, when that terrorist takes credit for a bloody suicide attack, the CIA decides to ask Anwar about it. CIA agents nab him returning from an intercontinental business trip and ship him to a secret North African dungeon, where he's stripped, tied to a chair and "questioned."
The CIA has doctored the man's flight records to make it look as if Anwar never got on the plane. So to most people, it looks as if the engineer simply disappeared.
But not to Isabella, Anwar's wife, who launches a full-fledged search to find her husband. And not to Corrinne Whitman, the CIA official who authorized Anwar's rendition. And certainly not to Douglas Freeman, the pen-pushing CIA analyst who must observe Anwar's brutal questioning at the hands of a foreign go-between. As he watches, Douglas grapples with the effectiveness of torture and his own conscience: Are these "procedures" really necessary? Do they save lives? What if this man is innocent? What if he's not?
The core message of Rendition comes straight from every courtroom and kindergarten class: Hurting other people is wrong. People are innocent until proven guilty. It sometimes takes a lot of courage to do the right thing.
But in a film like this, what's right and wrong can become painfully, and realistically, twisted.
[Spoiler Warning] Take Douglas, for instance. The analyst sacrifices his career in order to spirit Anwar out of the dungeon and back to the States. If the film forces a white hat on anyone, this is the guy.
But actor Jake Gyllenhaal insists his character's bloodless jailbreak wasn't about him coming to a moral epiphany. "I think it was about seeing something that doesn't work," he told Entertainment Weekly. "It's just a simple decision. It's not like, 'Wait a second! This is wrong! What do I do?!'"
Isabella's dilemma is far more ethically clear: She just wants to find out what happened to her husband, and she doggedly pursues trail after trail in her search. She loves her husband and wants him back. And Reese Witherspoon does a great job portraying a feminine, strong and loving wife.
Even the film's villains (if you can call them that) offer nuance and hints of humanity. Corrinne believes what she does for a living is "nasty business," but also that a terrorist attack on London was averted by extracting information in just this way. "I got grandkids in London, so I'm glad I'm doing this job," she says. Abasi Fawal, head interrogator in this dungeon of horror, can be cruel, but he, too, believes in the final justice of his cause. He loves his family, and when his daughter goes missing, he turns the city upside down to find her.
Rendition delves into the world of Islamic extremism as seen through the eyes of a teenager, Khalid. We see him enter a hidden mosque, covering his head and taking off his shoes as he's required to do. He sits down among a throng of men, while another man paces through the crowd carrying a machine gun.
A cleric begins preaching to the mosque audience, telling them that Jihad is the only path to freedom. He asks them what they will say to God when they reach heaven. Will they proudly say that they served His will by dying for Him? "Or will you hang your head in shame and roast in the fires of hell?" the cleric asks.
The service ends with attendees chanting, in Arabic, "God is great!"
Abasi tells his youngest daughter that people don't lose their dreams when they get older. "You dream all your life," he says. "It's one of God's gifts."
Abasi later encounters an elderly woman who is weeping over the loss of her grandson, who was a suicide bomber. She says his death was "God's will," but deeply mourns him. "They were just children," she says.
Douglas is having an affair with a woman from the office, and they kiss passionately while she's wrapped in a towel—exposing her legs and cleavage. In another scene in which they're both fully clothed, Douglas carries her into the bedroom (her legs wrapped around his waist) where they fall on the bed and cuddle and kiss.
Fatima Fawal, Abasi's daughter, runs off with Khalid without her estranged father's knowledge. The couple is shown kissing passionately. They sleep in the same bed, but it's unclear if their relationship is sexually consummated.
A fountain in the town's main square is shown exploding not once, but several times during the course of the two-hour movie. Twice it's replayed in grainy television news coverage. And twice the explosion is exploited in full cinematic reverie. Most of the carnage is seen from a distance—bodies lying on the ground, injured people staggering around bits of debris. But the camera does find its way into a car carrying Douglas and a fellow agent: Douglas is unscathed, but his colleague's neck has been fatally perforated by shrapnel, and blood pours from the wounds. We later see Douglas in a hospital waiting room crowded with bloody, wounded people, his own shirt covered in his friend's blood. A waiter gets shot in the gut right before the blast. Blood spurts. (This scene is also repeated).
Anwar's torture is horrific, if not particularly bloody. His captors chain him up, send electricity through his body and nearly drown him by pouring gallons of water on his upturned, gasping face. He's slapped by Abasi, who promptly sends him to "the hole"—a cramped cell in which he spends most of his time. We can surmise he's physically abused other times, since we see fresh blood on his face while he's being zapped with electricity.
Abasi shows Douglas a typical suicide bomb vest, filled with nails and bolts that tear into flesh. An Islamic terrorist shoots a would-be bomber when it looks like the bomber might be reconsidering his mission. The bomber dies and, in so doing, releases the grip he has on the trigger mechanism, causing the vest to explode.
Crude or Profane Language
Nine or 10 f-words are joined by a half-dozen misuses of God's or Jesus' names. There are also sporadic interjections of milder swear words ("h---," "d--n").
Drug and Alcohol Content
Douglas turns to drugs and alcohol to cope with his soul-wrenching job. He receives a call from Corrinne while smoking something from a hookah pipe—a substance that obviously clouds his mind. When Corrinne asks him if he's new at this sort of work, he says, "This is my first torture." We later see Douglas slam down four shots of alcohol in rapid succession.
We're shown that this kind of behavior for Douglas is out of character. When his girlfriend leaves a still smoldering cigarette behind in the bathroom (one we saw her smoke), he tosses it in the sink. When Abasi pours him a stout glass of whiskey during their first meeting, he leaves it untouched on the desk.
Politicians, lobbyists and other Washington, D.C., politicos drink champagne after a senate bill passes.
Other Negative Elements
Prisoners in Abasi's dungeon (we see two of them) are routinely tortured naked. At one point the camera takes in Anwar's bare backside.
Rendition makes you squirm. Part of that is because of its R-rated violence quotient, and its gravely and graphic depiction of torture. The other is that violence is mourned here, not glorified. Like it or not, most movies glorify violence, and we have all gotten used to seeing things through the eyes of action heroes and dirty cops.
Cinematic violence isn't really the arena in which Rendition makes its deepest mark, though. Most moviegoers will judge this film more on its politics. And in doing so, will fall back on the beliefs and positions they've brought with them.
That's not to say Tsotsi director Gavin Hood doesn't have his side of the story to tell here. And it is this: While terrorism is bad, it doesn't excuse torture. He takes us into the interrogation chamber, where we watch a human being undergo physical and psychological battering designed solely to make him crack. Outside the moral issues torture raises, Hood also leaves us, like Douglas, to wonder how effective it is. "Tell me what to say, and I'll say it," Anwar begs Douglas.
But Rendition makes this point largely through image and emotion, leaving the intellectual side of the argument purposefully dangling.
"It doesn't smash people over the head with a message," Reese Witherspoon told Entertainment Weekly. "We're not even sure if the husband is innocent or guilty. Which is one of the reasons I wanted to do it."
Rendition comes not with answers, but with an overwhelming sense of shame and sadness. This is a dark movie, its ostensibly happy ending so stark and bitter you long for something—anything—to be different. Forcefully, it takes you down to the dungeon, and never really lets you back out.