By underplaying the melodrama, Gavin Hood drains the life out of an explosive subject.
It’s not easy to make a dull film when your central components include terrorism, torture, secret CIA operations and contempo Middle East intrigue, but Gavin Hood has done it with “Rendition.” By underplaying the melodrama in the presumed hope of seeming subtle when Kelley Sane’s script is so baldly melodramatic, the “Tsotsi” helmer drains the life out of an obviously explosive subject. Despite the starry cast, this middlebrow stab at political relevance won’t muster more than fair B.O. upon Oct. 19 Stateside release.Title refers to the U.S.’s policy (introduced by the Clinton administration, one line of dialogue points out) of “extraordinary rendition,” by which suspected terrorists can be moved to other countries to be tortured without legal restraints or ramifications. Which is what happens to Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally), the good looking, Egyptian-born, American educated and accented husband of blond soccer mom Isabella (Reese Witherspoon) on his return to Chicago from a business trip in Africa. Anwar’s state-sponsored abduction is triggered by a suicide bombing in an unnamed North African country, which kills a top CIA case officer. Stepping into the breach is young analyst Douglas Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal), who soon finds himself observing the well-practiced torture techniques (water-soaked hoods, electrodes, good old-fashioned hitting) of past master Abasi (Igal Naor), the local top cop for this sort of thing. The CIA’s sliver of evidence against Anwar is records of a few cell phone calls to him from someone who may only coincidentally have the same name as a known terrorist. But that’s enough for the CIA’s terrorism guru (Meryl Streep, brandishing a slight Southern accent and too-obvious negative commentary about her nasty character) to have Anwar “put on a plane” and officially become a missing person. Concerned, the very pregnant Isabella heads to Washington, D.C., and uses an old college flame (Peter Sarsgaard), who now works for a senator (Alan Arkin), to try to get to the bottom of her husband’s whereabouts. Balancing this out is a surreptitious romance between Abasi’s lovely daughter Fatima (Zineb Oukach) and Khalid (Moa Khouas), whose brother leads a local radical Islamic group Abasi is trying to break. Given that he has no expertise to bring to the table and is strictly an observer until very near the end, Freeman is an exceptionally dreary fellow, and Gyllenhaal does nothing to give him any quirks or wrinkles; all he does is represent “conscience” in the most opaque, low-key way. Even Witherspoon, normally the most spirited of performers who can inject even limited characters and blah scripts with her own spark, can do little but mope around and search for different ways to look worried . A limited acting exercise, to say the least. Thesps playing the Arab characters have a little more juice in them, most prominently Metwally, who deserves some points for spending a good deal of the running time suffering abuse while constrained nude on a chair in a dungeon, and Naor, who actually gets to show more than just the vicious side of a stock character due to his tough cop character’s domestic turmoil . Locations skip around a lot and Hood’s direction provides scant fluidity to knit them together. Physical aspect of the production is OK , although one hopes that there is more verisimilitude to the North African scenes (shot in Morocco) than there is for the Chicago section; the block on which the Witherspoon character lives was quite clearly lensed in California, as it looks absolutely nothing like any street in Illinois.