The Reluctant Fundamentalist & Sinister

May 25, 2013
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Mohsin Hamid says the structure of his novel of 2007, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, was partly based on Fred Zinnemann’s classic western, High Noon. Instead of Gary Cooper waiting for the baddies to arrive, we have a group of militant students in Lahore awaiting the police and a group of American agents.

It sounds good in theory but one wonders if Mira Nair, who directed the adaptation of Hamid’s novel, has ever watched High Noon. Nair knows how to tell a story, but shows no great skill in building suspense.

Nair came to prominence in 1988 with Salaam Bombay!, a powerful story about prostitution in India. It was groundbreaking in its willingness to take on a taboo subject, let alone its feminist and humanist underpinnings.

Since then she has experimented with many different genres, making rom coms such as Monsoon Wedding, (2001) and adapting Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (2004). More than any of these, The Reluctant Fundamentalist is the kind of story that a committed Indian film-maker, married to a Muslim professor of Political Science, should be able to turn into something memorable. But despite a thorough airing of all the issues, and a clear-cut narrative thrust, the movie never clicks.

One of the persistent criticisms of this film is that Nair has over-simplified the story by removing many of the suggestive ambiguities of Hamid’s novel. Having not read the book I can’t confirm or deny this, but there is a sense in which the liberal sentiments being conveyed prevent the lead characters from becoming fully-rounded. The message, should you be in any doubt, is that the western and Islamic worlds could live in peace and harmony if only each side could abandon its own brand of fundamentalism, driven by high finance and religious extremism.

The protagonist is Changez Khan, played by Riz Ahmed, whom we last encountered as a nasty rich boy, in Michael Winterbottom’s Trishna (2011). A young Pakistani from a genteel, middle-class family in Lahore, Changez studies business at Harvard, and goes on to work for a big Wall St. firm. His story is told in successive flashbacks as he is interviewed by Bobby (Liev Schreiber), an American reporter who may be a CIA agent. While the story unfolds, the clock is ticking, with security forces preparing to raid the building in search of a kidnapped American professor.

Back on Wall St. we see how Changez reveals a natural aptitude for the job. He is quick with his figures and ruthless with diagnoses of how to make companies run more profitably. His mentor, Jim Cross (Kiefer Sutherland), sees him as a star in the making. He also finds an American girlfriend, Erica (Kate Hudson), a photographic artist.

Everything begins to change after 9/11, which leads to an upsurge of yankee nationalism and xenophobia. Changez gets stopped at airports and harrassed on the streets, becoming ever more conscious of his otherness. He realises that the American dream he coveted is not his dream after all. When he returns to Lahore he takes up a post as a professor at the university, establishing a reputation as an outspoken critic of the west. It is in this capacity that Changez is being interviewed, but he refuses to pronounce his views until he has told Bobby his potted life story.

Throughout the film we are supposed to be in two minds about Changez, whom we see talking on the phone during the opening scenes in which the professor is kidnapped. Is he involved in this action or not? Is he a bad guy pretending to be good? Have his experiences in America made him a supporter of terrorism?

These are all legitimate questions, but Changez never appears to be a villain, despite Riz Ahmed’s best efforts with brooding and mysterious expressions. His life in America has a fairy tale quality, although we always know it will come to an end. The final catalyst is a discussion with a moody Turkish publisher whose business is being done over by Changez’s firm.

The Reluctant Fundmentalist is a cinematic Bildungsroman, in which the lead character undergoes a personal transformation. Changez learns to focus on those values that are important to him while discarding the false idols of money and religion. He realises that life cannot be viewed in ‘fundamental’ shades of black-and-white. He is alienated by the narcissism of his artist girlfriend, and the fanaticism of the young muslims he meets at university.

Yet Changez has attained his maturity of outlook in a fiercely polarised world, which makes him an isolated, misunderstood individual – a voice of reason in an irrational era. This may be very noble but it produces a story that is too obvious in its moral lessons, aided by some pretty awful western music that swells up at crucial moments. If Nair had stuck to the qawwali singing that opens the film it might have helped keep Changez’s east-west dilemma out of the realms of sentimentality.

Horror moves are so drenched in blood nowadays it provides a compelling reason for many people not to watch them. On the other hand, there is a species of horror aficionado that  judges a film by the body count and by how many buckets of gore are spilt.

In this sense, Scott Derrickson’s Sinister represents the soft option this week. If I’d been inclined to go for the hard stuff I’d be writing about Fede Alvarez’s Evil Dead reboot, but there’s a limited attraction to a film that is allegedly more brutal – and less funny – than Sam Raimi’s original The Evil Dead of 1981.

Even though The Evil Dead was relentlessly gorey, the special effects and make-up were cobbled together on a shoe-string in the best B-movie tradition. No matter how gruesome there was a comical aspect to the film, which proceeded like a roller-coaster ride to hell.

Sinister is a more nuanced proposition – psychological rather than visceral. For a long time we are uncertain about whether we are dealing with an earthly psychopath or a supernatural being. The suspense builds slowly, as every passing night adds a fresh piece to the puzzle. On the way, numerous clichés of the horror genre are invoked, but there is enough momentum to keep us guessing to the end  – or almost to the end.

The movie begins with Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) and his family moving into a new house in some nameless American town. They receive a cold reception from the local police, who know that Ellison is a true crime writer, who has come to investigate a brutal murder they have been unable to solve.

In his urge to understand the crime Ellison has moved his wife and two small children into the very house where a couple and two of their own children were hanged from a tree in the backyard. Another daughter disappeared and has never been seen again. This occupation of a crime scene is the first implausibility of the story; the second being Ellison’s attempt to keep this knowledge from his wife Tracy (Juliet Rylance), for as long as possible.

In the attic, Ellison discovers a box containing a projector and several reels of Super-8, with titles such as “Barbeque” and “Pool Party”. When he plays these reels he discovers they are crude snuff movies showing the hanging of the house’s previous occupants, and other murders: a family immolated in a car in their own garage, another family drowned in their swimming pool, and so on. His first impulse is to call the police, but it has been ten years since his last successful book and he badly needs a hit. He realises how sensational this material is, and decides to investigate the murders on his own.

This is the third implausibility, and the inevitable moment in a horror movie when the protagonist transgresses some invisible moral code, bringing the forces of darkness down upon his own head. In slasher films it’s always teenage sex that raises the ire of the supernatural killer, but in Sinister, it’s Ellison’s pride and his selfish devotion to the literary profession.

When he tells his wife: “Writing is what gives meaning to my life,” she replies it is his family that provides this meaning. His “legacy” will not be a string of books, but his children. This is obviously the correct, healthy approach, but by this stage, Ellison is too caught up in his work, piecing together the story of a serial killer – Mr. Boogie – who has struck at long intervals in various parts of the country.

With each passing night, as his family miraculously sleep, Ellison finds some new disturbance in the house. He wanders around in the dark, armed with a baseball bat, looking for intruders. The fact that he should repeat this terrifying process over successive nights, while his family snooze, is the fourth implausibility.

The supernatural element is gradually introduced in the form of an ancient deity called Baghuul, who steals children and demands blood sacrifices. Even though the idea of a malevolent eastern deity on the loose in modern day America, is another cliché, there probably hasn’t been an earlier one who recorded his deeds on Super 8. This adds an arthouse twist for the film semioticians.

It is obvious that Baghuul has the makings of another celebrity monster in the manner of Jason or Freddy, or Dracula for that matter. As the end credits roll one experiences the terrifying realisation that there will be a sequel, and probably another sequel. The horror, the horror! A new franchise is born.

 

The Reluctant FundamentalistUSA/UK/Qatar, rated R, 126 mins

Sinister, USA, rated R, 105 mins


Published by the Australian Financial Review, May 4, 2013