Is there any type of film that is harder to make than a Black Comedy? There are just so many ways for it to go wrong; striking just the right carcinogenic tone is a high wire act worthy of Philippe Petit. For every one In the Company of Men or Heathers you get 10 Idle Hands or Let’s go to Prison’s.
Enter controversial British satirist Chris Morris and his new film, Four Lions, which begs the question, ‘What if the Three Stooges were suicide bombers?’ and answers it with unflinching, brutal, hilarity. Hit the jump for my review of Four Lions on DVD.
Upon hearing the pitch for Four Lions, it is almost impossible not to be intrigued. It’s a perfect exploitation setup. And in the hands of most filmmakers you would end up with just that, cheap exploitation. Most filmmakers would hedge their bets, winking into the camera, making sure that the audience understands that none of what is happening on screen is to be condoned. You can make a movie that toys with ideas of terrorism for laughs, but you can’t make an entire feature length film about terrorist heroes…right?
Wrong. That’s exactly what Morris does. From minute one, until the closing credits, we follow a crew of terrorist wannabes. We never see the “other side.” We’re never given an easy moral out. There is no alternate character to empathize with. This is a movie about a bunch of suicide bombers and it doesn’t chicken out from its core concept. It is 100 minutes of the development, planning, and execution of a terrorist plot. And it’s damn funny.
But even more impressive than Morris’ willingness to follow the central premise through to its inevitable conclusion is the film’s ability to make the viewer care for the bombers without resorting to lame emotional appeals. Almost miraculously, the film is entirely free of lame moral equivocation or political proselytizing. There is no hand wringing over the US invasion(s) of Iraq. No heart wrenching scenes of civilian homes being bulldozed by the Israeli government. No white guilt used to justify why we should like these guys. There’s just detailed character work, sharp writing, and balls of steel.
At about the 80-minute mark, I began to feel sad. Even as the protagonists were standing in the middle of a room filled with bleach, nails, and all the makings of a mass murder, I liked them. I didn’t want to see them die and I didn’t want to see them get caught. It was one of the few moments in recent memory when I had absolutely no idea how a movie could end.
Over the last 10 years there have been countless complaints about Arab and Muslim character being reduced to faceless terrorists on screen, but somehow, in making a movie where the Muslims and Arabs actually are terrorists, Morris and his actors create some of the most wholly sympathetic Middle Eastern characters yet depicted on screen in a Western movie. Each of the four bombers is given a different and distinct personality, with unique goals, motivations, and emotional hang-ups. They all feel like real, three-dimensional people, even as they act nothing like real people.
And all politics aside, this film is an excellent examination of group dynamics in young men. So much of the film is based around bad ideas pin balling through the minds of post-adolescents trying to prove their manliness. You can trace the spiral of their collective madness to the different ways in which each member of the team needs to feel accepted.
You have the alpha male with a chip on his shoulder about being white, so he takes everything too far. Then, you have the new recruit, who is all too eager to finish the hazing process and fit in. He’s the ultimate poser, willing to tell his friends that he would cut off their heads if he thought it would make them like him more. Next there is the Beta male. He’s the smartest of the group, but he lacks the authoritative passion to lead, so he ends up following even when he knows it’s a bad idea. Finally, you have the little brother.
That little brother is the most interesting character and the emotional core of the movie. Waj (Kayvan Novak), is a mentally handicapped bomber. And whereas a weaker filmmaker might make this implicit, Morris displays this openly. In many of the scenes the other bombers readily prey upon Waj’s mental limitations, lying to him because they know they can get away with it. His favorite explanation of Jihad is that it is like a “fast pass” for the afterlife, which he views as Disneyland. Perhaps this is a bit of a cheat, a sort of cheap emotional appeal, but it is made less “easy” because even as his retardation makes Waj easier to like, we’re still made to laugh at it and not in a sympathetic Farrelly Brothers’ kind of way.
But as good as Four Lions is, you can still feel its limitations. This is Morris’ first feature, and while it is certainly an auspicious calling card of a movie, it is unmistakably a first film from a guy who is used to working in short form. You have the A-plot, the B-plot, the C-plot and a Runner. Each of the plots echoes the others thematically and about every twenty minutes, these three plots intersect, often with the final punch line revolving around the runner. Then, they reset into new A, B, and C plots. Consequently, until the film’s final reel, the proceedings move like a loosely connected series of sketches. The feeling is like that of watching a really good BBC comedy series DVD box set. There is an arc and a definite three-act structure to the whole, but the pacing is weird, and sometimes unsatisfying.
And though the film is very well thought out, it is also full of half-realized concepts. Several scenes make commentary on England’s surveillance state and the credits are intercut with CCTV footage of different sequences from the film, but it never really adds up to anything. Also, in addition to the four main characters there is a fifth bomber who is woefully underdeveloped and then killed off in a scene that doesn’t actually make any sense. In fact, the film is littered with characters who come and go and don’t add anything, as if they were written in to be further explored in later episodes. There’s the awkward, perpetually stoned neighbor, the fitness obsessed boss, the militantly Muslim (though not militant Muslim) brother, the beautiful, religious, and somewhat sassy wife. All of these characters have comic potential but almost none of them get enough screen time to explore it.
Still, it is hard to begrudge a movie for trying to say too much in an era where so many movies have nothing to say at all. Overall, this is a challenging film. It is intelligent, complex, and often emotionally confusing. If you are not already inclined towards black comedy you will likely find it repulsing, but if the premise excites you and you can work through thick accents and copious amounts of British slang, Four Lions is a delightful, eye-popping treat.
This DVD is a very mixed bag. On the one hand, it has a clean and sleek design, with attractive menus and insightful features. On the other hand, it is also missing some of the more basic DVD features that would be uncommonly useful here. Specifically, I mean that there are no English subtitles on this disc. I didn’t have trouble understanding the dialogue, but I can understand how others might. In fact, the first review I read for the film recommended waiting for DVD specifically so you could use subtitles. All things considered, their omission is a significant faux pas.
Furthermore, though I have grown to hate them over the course of nearly 150 DVD reviews, I would have loved to hear a commentary track on this film. While I can respect why some filmmakers such as David Lynch refuse to do commentary tracks, it does not seem as though Morris wants to hide his reasoning from the public. The DVD is filled with other extras that belay his sympathies, and so hearing a breakdown of the development process would have been much appreciated. But enough bitching about what’s not on the disc, on to what is.
Each of the menu screens is animated with a clip from the movie. Some are alternate takes, or just sequences that never made it in. It’s simple stuff, but it’s attractive, easy to navigate, and adds some production value. There are a slew of deleted scenes, about 20 minutes in all. Some of these are hilarious, but most of these were well cut as some of them make the message of the movie too clear.
Additionally, there is about 20 minutes of B-roll footage. I didn’t really care much for this, but if you’re a fan of Morris, it might be interesting to see him directing (he gives line readings to his actors), and the cast does some funny stuff. There is a 10-minute making-of featurette. It has a lot of footage from the B-roll. Not too much of worth here, but above average, if only for featuring a very funny impersonation of the director. Backing up the making-of stuff is a collection of storyboards. It’s in video form, not still frames, so it’s hard to really get a good look at the drawings and I couldn’t be bothered to squint and decipher the handwriting. But if you want to learn how to make a movie, I suppose it could be of use.
The best features on this disc are the research materials. There are two 20-minute videos of interviews with British Muslim youths. One is with a young convert who is in the middle of fighting a terrorist charge levied against him over 2 years prior. The young man seems scattered, afraid, but artistic and hopeful. He’s not the most eloquent person, but his personal plight helps give some perspective to the feature.
The second interview details the daily lives of Pakistani youths in England. I really liked this because it showed me part of the world I had never seen before. However, because there are no English subtitles on this disc, I had a lot of trouble understanding some of the interviewees. The audio is not the best, the accents can be rather thick, and the young men in the video use slang in American English, British English, and at least two foreign languages. As a fan of words, I found this to be a dizzying puzzle box. But unless you’re a super geek like me, it might just be frustrating. All the same, if you enjoyed the film, this is exactly the type of extra that will enhance your viewing experience.
Finally, there are apparently a slew of easter eggs hidden throughout the disc. I couldn’t figure out how to access them. I’m not sure if maybe they are only on the Blu-Ray or on the R-2 release. But, if you get the disc, look out for them.
Four Lions has been compared to Dr. Strangelove in many reviews. It’s nowhere near that good. I get the impression that it was originally developed for television and it might have worked better in that format. Still, as a movie it is miles above most films released in 2010. If I had seen it that year, it certainly would have made my top 10. If you like black humor and politics, this is a film for you. But if you don’t like movies that make you uncomfortable, by all means, stay away. Distinctly British in more than just its thick, sometimes impenetrable accents, Four Lions is truly daring and breathtaking cinema.
THE FILM: 9.0/10
THE DVD: 8.2/10