‘Rendition’ a convoluted, violent political thriller with a message

David Hohwald

“Rendition” may be the most controversial movie of the year. Director Gavin Hood, coming off an Oscar win with “Tsotsi” for the best foreign film of 2005, has decided to follow up his accomplishment with an even more ambitious project: taking on America’s “extraordinary rendition” policy, whereby all suspected terrorists are sent overseas to be tortured.

Sadly, what starts out as an interesting moral exercise with a lot of promise devolves into a convoluted mess full of asides and needless scenes, turning a promising movie into yet another rip-off of films like “Traffic” and “Syriana.” Still, what is left at the end that is salvageable is pretty solid.

The direction of “Rendition” may be the most confusing of the year for several reasons. For one, the movie decides to take on a heavy story load by using too many characters. What could have been a more interesting, interior piece tries to become a “Babel”-esque epic, spanning nations and cultures generally unsuccessfully. This creates a mess of a movie, with good scenes followed by bad scenes followed by pointless scenes. At some points the movie is thoroughly harrowing, with power and poise, like the scene where Jake Gyllenhaal is quoting Shakespeare to his foreign ally bent on getting information by using torture. Unfortunately, Hood undercuts this incredibly tense moment with, of all things, a joke. This Jekyll-and-Hyde direction is astounding in its range between good and bad.

The acting is similarly all over the place. For a star-studded movie, the really odd thing is that the best performances are from the no-names. Meryl Streep is mediocre and falls flat, doing nothing other than putting her name on the movie’s poster, and Peter Sarsgaard does basically the same thing. Reese Witherspoon proves that her distraught persona really just involves yelling a lot, and her character has zero depth. On the other hand, Omar Metwally is good as Anwar El-Ibrahimi, an Egyptian national tortured because of a suspected link with a recent terror attack. Yigal Naor plays opposite him as the man performing the torture and brings gravitas and humanity to a role that could have been quite one-dimensional.

Gyllenhaal is the real mystery here. His performance, like the movie, is inconsistent. At times he is excellent, but most of the time it seems like he is mildly dazed. As a whole, the acting is pretty good but with too many noticeable flaws.

When it comes to a movie about the nature of torture in the War on Terror, it is assumed that a movie will not pull any punches, but sadly, the writing and plot of “Rendition” is as haphazard as the rest of the movie. Hood decides to go the simplistic route, taking a stand that torture is wrong but hedging his bets with a few token lines from characters like Streep who say torture saves lives. This kind of writing tries to be deep and ends up getting nowhere. In attempting to tell all sides of a story with his script, writer Kelley Sane ends up telling us too little about everything.

The writing is far too ambitious and does not hold up. The sub-plot of the students in Africa is a prime example of something that did not have to be in the movie but was anyway.

In trying to add a “twist” to the movie, Hood ended up with an extra sub-plot that did nothing and seemed like a part of a wholly different film (specifically “Paradise Now,” the film Hood beat for his 2005 Oscar). Suffice it to say, for a movie about torture, it does not discuss the issue enough, nor does it take a real stand. For such a complex movie in terms of plot, it is surprisingly shallow.

“Rendition” is a powerful movie trapped in a nightmare of poor plotting. Good performances are nullified by bad ones, great scenes are sabotaged by a bad line or by framing them between useless scenes and the direction is spotty. While Hood shows promise, and the movie has some great parts, in the end it adds up to little more than “Syriana”-lite, unwilling or unable to make a serious point.

It may be worth a rental, but it is hardly worth the price of admission unless you’re seriously interested in seeing the few diamonds in this enormous rough patch.