I will omit any introduction to this review. I will avoid burying the lead. The Reluctant Fundamentalist is the best film I’ve seen during the first five months of 2013. It is unlikely to get any real Oscar attention. It was released too early in the year. It’s not a period drama. It’s not a bio pic of some famous entertainer or historical figure. It has none of the “indicators” for taking home Academy awards, but it is my first Best Picture contender of the year.
In the opening scene, a couple is strolling down a street in Pakistan while a van slowly follows them. Somewhere else in town, a young man slips away from a family gathering to talk surreptitiously on the telephone. As his conversation continues, the van closes in on the couple. The woman is pushed to the ground, and the man is dragged into the back of the van, and it speeds away. When the abduction is complete, the young man terminates his phone call and returns to his family celebration. Did he orchestrate the kidnapping? Is he a terrorist? Or has this scene simply been edited to deceive the audience into making these assumptions? Although the remainder of the film will answer these questions, it will also transport the viewer into a drama much deeper than what these basic thriller elements would usually offer.
In short order, we learn that the kidnapped man is an American professor teaching at a local Pakistani college who has been abducted by local radicals. The young man on the phone is Changez (Riz Ahmed), a young professor with a nationalistic fervor who has caught the attention of the American intelligence community. The day after the kidnapping, Changez sits down with American journalist Bobby Lincoln (Liev Schreiber) to discuss his days attending Princeton and chasing the American Dream. This interview provides the jumping off point for lengthy flashbacks that show the audience firsthand how Changez became the man he is today. But, who is he today? Terrorist or educator? Or possibly some combination of the two?
It is extremely rare to find a film that is perfectly paced and is populated with characters that are true to themselves throughout its two-hour span. No head-scratching behavioral inconsistencies for the sake of a Hollywood plot twist. No gratuitous scenes of violence and mayhem to hold our interest. The Reluctant Fundamentalist earns the viewer’s attention by immersing the audience in Changez’s life and making his actions and decisions the sources of its suspense. The narrative is entirely unpredictable as it unfolds yet it has a perfect symmetry to it upon reflection.
The film is also willing to ask tough questions of its audience. Why is it acceptable for U.S. citizens to have pride in our country, but it’s suspicious when foreigners show the same level of nationalism about their homelands? Why does our government intervene in the affairs of certain countries while watching atrocities occur in others? Why do we fear Middle Easterners as a group when so few of them have directed harm at our country?
Previously starring in European television productions and small foreign films, Riz Ahmed is a revelation and gives a flawless performance as Changez. His portrayal of the young Pakistani runs the gamut of emotions from anger to heartbreak without ever manipulating the audience or spiraling into melodrama. There is no big “Oscar moment” or contrived speech written into the script for the young actor. It’s a subtle, honest performance that avoids being “showy”. It’s acting that doesn’t look like acting.
The supporting cast is equally impressive. After spending eight years screaming that he’s running out of time on 24, Kiefer Sutherland shows that he still has real acting chops as Changez’s Wall Street mentor, Jim Cross. Even perennial lightweight Kate Hudson gives the most credible performance of her career as the young Pakistani’s American love interest. Liev Schreiber’s journalist could have simply been a convenient plot device. Instead, he injects Bobby Lincoln with just the right combination of skepticism and humanity to make him an integral part of the film. The ensemble cast is so believable that in many scenes the viewers may have to remind themselves that this is not in fact a documentary.
Director Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding) keeps the narrative unfolding at a perfect pace. Clocking in at a solid two hours, the film never lags. Every scene furthers the story being told. Nothing in Nair’s filmography of cutesy Indian rom-coms and costume dramas prepared me for the impact of The Reluctant Fundamentalist. In an industry that relegates female directors to romances and light-hearted projects, it’s encouraging to see a woman at the helm of a drama with such impact.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist is not a trite “message” film though it has a great deal to say through the lives and interactions of its characters. The film tackles weighty themes – bigotry, stereotyping, ethnocentrism, corporate greed, and nationalism to name a few – without bludgeoning the audience with their significance. You care about these people because you identify with them as people. The film resonates with the viewer, and you will be thinking about it for days after the credits have rolled. Too ask for anything more is simply unrealistic.
10 out of 10
The Movie Isle
Scott Phillips holds a degree in print journalism from the University of Georgia and is currently a member of the Georgia Film Critics Association (GAFCA). In addition to his role as a correspondent for Timed Edition, Scott serves as the Executive Editor and Senior Writer for themovieisle.com. From 2013 through 2017, he reviewed films for filmdispenser.com. Along with his duties as a critic, Scott serves as the Content Programmer for the Way Down Film Festival held in Columbus, Georgia every fall.