'Four Lions': An Excellent Comedy About Terrorists (Yes, Really)

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This film, about inept jihadists, didn't make a splash in theaters, but hopefully will get the audience it deserves now that it's out on DVD

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In a summer 2010 Atlantic article entitled "The Case for Calling Them Nitwits," Daniel Byman and Christine Fair sought to debunk the widespread portrayal of terrorists as diabolical masterminds. "To be sure, some terrorists are steely and skilled—people like Mohamed Atta, the careful and well-trained head of the 9/11 hijackers," Byman and Fair wrote. "Their leaders and recruiters can be lethally subtle and manipulative, but the quiet truth is that many of the deluded foot soldiers are foolish and untrained, perhaps even untrainable." The first terrorist-nitwits they cite reportedly died in a pre-suicide-mission group hug.

The British film Four Lions premiered at Sundance a few months before Byman and Fair's article was published, and it focuses on a cell of serial bunglers very much like some of those mentioned in the article. But the movie, which arrived on home video last week, also happens to be an excoriating farce—one that blasts audience expectations and notions of good taste by rather gleefully embracing these narratives of incompetence.

Of course, this kind of thing isn't exactly a commercial proposition. That much, at least, hasn't changed since 2005, when a script for a sitcom called The Cell made the rounds, "cracking up development executives and their assistants" but remaining in their eyes totally unmarketable. Four Lions maintained a relatively high profile on the festival circuit throughout the first half of 2010, but sealed no immediate distribution deal. In September, the comedy was finally scooped up by Drafthouse Films, the distribution arm of Austin's Alamo Drafthouse theater, as their inaugural release. The well-reviewed film ultimately collected about $300,000 in theaters. (For comparison, In the Loop, another hot-button, documentary-style comedy from Britain, made nearly $2.5 million stateside in 2009.) But Four Lions now seems poised to find a devoted following on DVD, as it deserves to.

The film—directed by Chris Morris; written by Jesse Armstrong, Sam Bain, and Morris; and shot by Lol Crawley to look like the handsomest imaginable episode of The Office—portrays its London-based terrorists as buffoons of the highest order: One of them, Barry (Nigel Lindsay), a white Muslim convert who is also the most extreme extremist on display, insists that blowing up a mosque is the most effective plan, since it would instantly radicalize all the moderates who worship there. Fessal (Adeel Akhtar) admits to buying massive amounts of hydrogen peroxide from the same wholesaler, but boasts of having used different voices every time. When it comes time for these characters to immolate themselves—the movie rather shockingly pursues its suicide bombers to their logical ends—they do so in a spectacularly ineffectual (not to mention ridiculous) fashion. For its meticulousness in depicting terrorist in-extremis logistical failures, Morris's film would pair well with Julia Loktev's Day Night Day Night and Olivier Assayas's recent Carlos in a triple feature.

But the jihadis of Four Lions are not just inept at picking targets and comparatively mundane tasks like stockpiling materials. They are, most importantly, self-deluding and hypocritical. Their essential stupidity extends to the more abstract level of ideology. Ringleader Omar (Riz Ahmed) tells his son a bedtime-story version of The Lion King (these domestic scenes don't create a bedrock of sympathy so much as fundamental confusion—Omar's wife and son appear to have no misgivings whatsoever about his martyr aspirations), even turning the cartoon into a veiled retelling of his training-camp exploits in Pakistan; in the very next scene Omar ends a rant against the infidels by invoking Disneyland as the epitome of the godless consumerism of the West. Waj (Kayvan Novak), who often calls to mind Sacha Baron Cohen's Ali G persona, has a calling-card rap that references both the mujahedeen and Tupac Shakur. In the many self-glorifying testimonials we see the jihadis videotaping, the emphasis seems to be on looking as badass as possible, not delivering the religious message at (detonator-clutching) hand.

A thus far less-remarked-upon aspect of Four Lions is that the general ineptness to some degree applies across the board—not only to the terrorists, but to pretty much everyone who enters the frame. There is the clueless woman who lives next door to the apartment where the jiadhis cook up explosives; Omar's security-guard co-worker, who appears equally slow on the uptake; a police sniper who is ordered to take out a man in a bear costume but mistakenly shoots a Wookiee (shades here of the 2005 shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes); and a rookie hostage negotiator who takes a tense conversation in the wrong direction.

Not unlike In the Loop, Four Lions gradually induces a kind of alarm at the terrible folly to which all of mankind, though particularly its nitwits who strap explosives to themselves, is prone. In this respect, Armstrong, Bain, and Morris probably come too close to equating the terrorists and their essentially innocent targets. But Four Lions intends to be provocative. Through its constant button-pushing, the film explores the possible dangers of received ideas about who terrorists are and how they can be portrayed on-screen. In the process, it also rather improbably manages to be quite funny.

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Benjamin Mercer has written on film for The Village Voice, The New York Sun, The L Magazine, and Reverse Shot. He is a copy editor at Bookforum. More

He has also copyedited for two New York dailies: The New York Sun and amNewYork.

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