“We’ve got women talking back…
We’ve got people playing stringed instruments…
It’s the end of days.”
“I may ask you to blow yourself up, but I will never ask you to wiz in your own mouth.”
Four Lions is a bold piece of outside-the-norm filmmaking. It made me laugh out loud even while often cringing simultaneously; both at the bleakness of humor and at how the film made me care about Omar, the much put upon leader of what one would only charitably refer to as misfit wanna-be terrorists.
This is clearly not a film for all tastes. If wordy seriously black comedy isn’t ever going to push your buttons well…there are a lot of other good choices out there. But if you feel you might fancy something smartly written and edgy to the point of uncomfortable, at least until the next laugh, this is one of the better choices (and probably the most unusual) you’re likely to find in a theater this year in that genre.
It’s hard to describe. The closest I can get is to picture an alternate film universe in which Kevin Smith wrote a dark as night black comedy about a gang of terrorists who didn’t quite know where to blow themselves up, had a collaborator contribute some social commentary on the war on terror, and had a more visually oriented director helm the project – who in turn cast Ali G as one of the main characters. Still not quite right – but perhaps it gives a taste of the sort of absurdist satire to expect while watching the Four Lions.
The picture opens with what turns out to be the blooper real for a terrorist cell’s martyrdom videos. As a guy poses in front of a hung backdrop we can hear a director off screen, urging the young man to “sit like you mean it,” prompting a furious discussion of just what that means. The scene fades out only to be replaced in the next shot with the same fellow holding a noticeably smaller than life sized AK-47.
When questioned about that, he responds it’s not a problem and that he’d just move closer to the camera to the camera to resolve the issue. I think it’s pretty easy to be forgiven at that point for drawing an analogy to the infamous feet vs. inches moments of This is Spinal Tap. Not to mention in a later scene when one of the group who’s posing as the group’s drummer while renting a safe house spontaneously combusts. No, no one chokes on vomit, though there’s a fair amount of swallowing inappropriate items for reasons best not thought about too much.
Eventually the camera pans back revealing we’ve been watching the film’s main character (and leader of the cell) Omar (Riz Ahmed) showing his wife their martyrdom film’s bloopers. Though as they watch further, Omar is forced to concede that there really is nothing but bloopers in the reel…which pretty much sets the tone for these guys. As it turns out, being morons doesn’t keep you from being a danger to society – or to each other. Omar is (if you feel comfortable calling him that) the brains of the outfit. Then there’s British convert Barry (Nigel Lindsay) with plenty of extremely questionably advice to dispense, Omar’s friend Waj (Kayvan Novak), who lets Omar do all his critical thinking, and Fessal (Adeel Akhtar) who’s also not super bright (“you’re so dumb you’re buying silver nitrate from Amazon.com”). In case you’re wondering, Fessal is also the character who’s responsible for one of their plans involving strapping explosives to a trained crow pictured in much of the film’s marketing materials. Eventually the group expands to include another student they radicalize from rapping about the threat to Islam and quoting Tupac to plotting to blow himself up as well.
Omar and Waj travel briefly to Pakistan for training but mainly they hang around England plotting on how and where to blow themselves up. The banter between the group is were most of the film’s humor is – including some pretty elaborate trash talking about each other in Urdu. Most of the characters have something visibly wrong with their critical thinking skills. Even presumably for a group intent on murder suicide for reasons that are fuzzy at best. For example, one of the lessons you’d think you wouldn’t need to have taught to you it that it’s a bad idea to bring chicks to the safe house, especially when it’s clearly full of bomb making materials. Another has issues distinguishing chickens from rabbits. It’s an odd bunch.
It felt easy to start to like, and feel bad for the trials and tribulations of Omar – only to then remember that his goal in life is literally to kill most of the views of the film. The story doesn’t really explain what radicalizes Omar. His beliefs are especially hard to reconcile, and scary given his middle class existence, supportive wife and young son he dotes on. He’s clearly more open in some of his thinking than his brother who has a much more conservative interpretation of parts their religion though abhors violence completely in his beliefs, to the point of being uncomfortable in the presence of a water pistol.
It also seems surprising that Omar’s (at least by his brother’s standard) relatively westernized wife’s support is so strongly in the service of his quest to blow himself up. Often patiently listening and offering sympathy about his useless comrades – while explaining that his key role includes things including that “you’ve got to make sure they all blow themselves up in the right place.” Western security forces don’t escape unscathed – being equally or more bumbling at times and similarly displaying some questionable morals.
In a scene I can’t really fully describe without a major spoiler, there’s a fantastically funny (though in a very, almost painfully black comedy sense) and ill timed conversation between a set of snipers about whether a Wookie is a bear or not. See – maybe Kevin Smith did a hand in all this behind the scenes after all…
The film is well acted, the dialog mostly sharp and I stayed interested in the outcome all the way through. By virtue of that, I feel obligated to recommend the film. I can’t say I fully understand or appreciate the underlying serious points the director was shooting for…or even if I feel there is truly a substantive message out of all the goings on, beyond perhaps that the war on terror is absurd in multiple directions. But for all of that, it’s definitely one of the more creative (if sometimes confusing) things I’ve seen this year – and for that alone it’s worth checking out. Even if you may feel a bit dirty for enjoying it.
Oh, and if you do go make sure to stay until the main credit roll. As there’s a bit of final ironic wish fulfillment involved to make one of Omar’s early blunders pay off in unexpected ways.