Ways of Making You Talk

Photo: Sam Emerson/Courtesy of New Line Cinema

When it comes to torture, context is all. Terrorism suspects tortured on Fox’s red-meat 24 have clear knowledge of missiles with nuclear warheads whizzing toward Los Angeles at this very second, and the high-priced civil-liberties lawyers who descend on the scene (within the hour, natch) and interrupt interrogations have been hired by thickly accented bad guys taking cunning advantage of our naïve Bill of Rights. Torture = Good. On the other hand, people tortured in lefty dramas like The Road to Guantánamo were arrested by mistake, and no impoverished civil-liberties lawyer can get anywhere near them for years: Torture = Bad. The clunky but stirring new melodrama Rendition is firmly on the torture-bad end of the spectrum. It centers on Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally), a clean-cut Egypt-born U.S. resident married to a pregnant Reese Witherspoon (so how can he be evil?) who gets snatched at the airport by the CIA after a suicide-bomb blast in the Middle East kills one of its operatives. Following a relatively civil interrogation by Emil Skoda, the agency’s Director of Psychotic Indifference to Life (I didn’t get her full title, but she’s impersonated by Meryl Streep) orders Anwar shipped to a hellhole dungeon in a pointedly unnamed country for what you might call “the Full Dante.”

As the folks at New Line Cinema were quick to point out in an e-mail sent less than an hour after the decision, the Supreme Court last week refused to hear the “extraordinary rendition” case of Khaled el-Masri, a Lebanon-born German who accused the CIA of kidnapping him in 2003 and flying him to Afghanistan for interrogation and torture. Rendition is the same Kafkaesque nightmare done in Saturday-Afternoon-at-the-Movies style, with multiple crisscrossing plots, a cliff-hanger climax, and a strong current of hope—that an individual’s conscience can triumph over careerism and bureaucratic moral blindness. It’s pure Hollywood, but the humanism gets to you.

On separate continents, right and wrong duke it out in the heads of Jake Gyllenhaal and Peter Sarsgaard. Gyllenhaal plays Douglas Freeman (that name!), a green CIA analyst who helpfully describes himself as a “pencil pusher,” in contrast to a tough “knuckle dragger” colleague. But when the knuckle dragger gets blown up, it falls to the pencil pusher to watch big, bald Abasi Fawal (Igal Naor) brutally torture the naked, weeping Anwar. (How much CIA agents participate no one knows; I’m partial to Richard Pryor’s old bit about the role of U.S. military “advisers”: “I’d shoot the motherfucker, that’s my advice. Blam!”) Sarsgaard plays Alan Smith, Reese’s ex-boyfriend, who works for a powerful senator (Alan Arkin). Will he convince his boss to bring the case to the Congress and the American people? Will Freeman—whose eyes bulge as he witnesses Anwar’s beating, waterboarding, and electrocution—do more than drink himself into a stupor at the end of the day?

I’ve left out a sort of Romeo-and-Juliet subplot involving a devout Muslim student and the daughter of the baldy torturer: It’s unbelievably stilted but has, narratively speaking, a sting in its tail. There’s a lot of crosscutting, some of it peculiar. I was mystified by the leaping back and forth between Anwar’s torture and a madrassa in which students are assured of everlasting glory if they die in the course of killing infidels. It’s probably the filmmakers’ attempt at balance, a reminder of the violent fanaticism on all sides. But the jumping around is as deft as a hippo in a tutu, and the director, Gavin Hood (who made the galvanic morality play Tsotsi), never finds a rhythm.

The cast pulls you in, though. Metwally seems preternaturally guileless, and Witherspoon is very touching as she waddles around knocking on doors and fixing people with her ice-blue stare. You don’t dare laugh, even when she delivers lines as obvious as “All along the way, people give up, stop fighting. Please don’t be one of those people who just turns away.” The object of her plea, Sarsgaard, is remarkably believable as an ambitious political geek. Every word he utters seems calculated, the result of a quick cost-benefit analysis, and you never know which way he’ll go, because the thoughts themselves are so shrouded. Gyllenhaal is even more compelling. He’s a reticent actor—he doesn’t take many chances. But he builds that limitation into the character, and his immobility reeks of fear and self-disgust.

Two performances are mesmerizingly over the top. As the torturer, the Israel-born Igal Naor looks as if he could bite the heads off his prisoners, gargle, and sleep well, certain his cause is right. And Streep … her first appearance is startling: pinched face, slit eyes, sucking-a-lemon mouth. When she is challenged, her features turn to ice and her voice drops to a lethal monotone. But her southern accent is increasingly ridiculous, and the performance drifts over the line into camp. It’s a good liberal’s depiction of a reactionary conservative. You can almost hear the director yelling “Cut!” and the actress screaming, “Who is this bitch?!”

You know that awards season is here because two dead-kid movies, Gone Baby Gone and Reservation Road, open on the same day, October 19—and there’s nothing like dead or imperiled children to up the dramatic stakes. You’ll have to forgive me for not reviewing both: I have a firm one-dead-kid-movie-per-column limit. So I chose Gone Baby Gone: It’s based on one of Dennis Lehane’s terrific Kenzie-Gennaro detective novels, and I wanted to see if Ben Affleck could commit as a director the way he doesn’t as an actor. He can, it turns out. His dark, doom-laden Boston has more gravity than Jupiter, and the movie sinks its hooks in painfully deep.

Gone Baby Gone revolves around the disappearance of Amanda, a 4-year-old Dorchester girl whose single mother (Amy Ryan) is an addict and Lord knows what else. It’s her pious sister (Amy Madigan) who hires the private investigators Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) and Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan) to poke around the neighborhood the way the cops can’t. Patrick grew up amid Irish toughies and Angie comes from Mafia stock—although Affleck and his co-screenwriter, Aaron Stockard, leave out her backstory and the character suffers for it. Gone Baby Gone is the fourth book in the series, which means a lot of that backstory is missing. But you know why Affleck wanted to make it. Written just before Lehane’s Mystic River, it’s the rare genre novel that poses an unanswerable question: How far can you go to protect neglected and abused children in a world rife with selfish parents and predators? It’s a vigilante book at war with itself, with an ending that will leave you similarly ripped in half—a shambles. (Just to be clear: I’m not saying Amanda is or isn’t the movie’s dead kid, only that there is one.)

Affleck shot the film in Boston, and he captures the city’s unfathomable layout, intense tribalism, and the existential separateness of its neighborhoods better than Scorsese in The Departed. But his hand is often heavier than it needs to be. He lingers on the mottled, leering visages of the working-class locals, so that the city becomes a circus-freak show. And he lets his actors stride into the minefield that is the fake Boston accent: It’s all “pahk ya cah” and “fock yah muthah.”

The actors are amazing in spite of those accents. Casey Affleck has never had a pedestal like the one his brother provides him, and he earns it. His Patrick is pale and raspy, with a slight grogginess that gives him an astounding vulnerability—and makes his bursts of temper shocking. He’s not physically imposing, but he reels off four-letter words so fast that it leaves his bigger and more dangerous opponents staring in disbelief. Michelle Monaghan has the more recessive role: Angie doesn’t want the case and seems almost too fragile to contemplate the abuse of the child she’s hunting. But what a face she has. Every wary look, every retreat is beautifully expressive. Morgan Freeman—improbably cast as a Boston police chief named Doyle—gives a perfectly judged performance, with enough in reserve to keep you guessing. Ed Harris plays a homicide cop with spooky blue eyes that never blink. He looks both insane and all-seeing, as if he knows too many bad things to close them ever again.

Maybe a cigar is just a cigar, but if you smoke a big fat one while holding forth on social justice and, implicitly, the necessity of murdering people to achieve it, you come off as a dangerously self-satisfied and conscienceless voluptuary. In General Idi Amin Dada: A Self-Portrait, the director Barbet Schroeder gave the egotistical Ugandan mass murderer the time and space to expose himself, and in Terror’s Advocate he does the same thing with stogie-sucking Jacques Vergès, legal defender of some of the most righteously homicidal people on earth. The film is long and increasingly convoluted, but Vergès’s journey, from impassioned anti-colonialist (he defended the Algerian War of Independence’s most glamorous terrorist, Djamila Bouhired, and then married her) to cohort of the Red Brigades, Carlos “the Jackal,” and Klaus Barbie, is a brilliant study in the link between moral corruption and narcissism.

Jake Gyllenhaal recently landed in a bit of lukewarm, blogger-stirred water when he spoke about torture on CNN’s Showbiz Tonight. “I believe that governments and presidents should act as parents to a country. And I think that there are things that a country needs to know and there are things that it doesn’t,” said the actor, who campaigned for John Kerry. “So in some ways, [torture] can be justifiable?” asked CNN. “Yes, I think that’s the debate in the movie … I think the debate is what it’s about, I think the debate is what it’s always about … and I think you can come to a resolution that way,” he replied. “Some interesting resolution.”

Directed by Gavin Hood. New Line Cinema. R.

Gone Baby Gone
Directed by Ben Affleck. Miramax. R.

Terror’s Advocate
Directed by Barbet Schroeder. Magnolia Pictures. NR.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com.

Ways of Making You Talk