Four Lions review
Everybody seems to have seen Four Lions tonight – it’s a trending topic on Twitter!
[Mild spoilers if you’ve not seen it: be warned]
(Chris Morris, UK, 2010)
The set-up is broad-strokes jihad satire, but Morris’ film is a stealth bomb. Despite the belly laughs, the biggest detonation is its unanticipated emotional wallop
Anybody familiar with Chris Morris’ previous work will know that they should be prepared to be shocked. And sure enough, his feature-film debut – a comedy about suicide bombers – is a shocker. Just not for the reasons you expect. The fearless, bone-shattering satire is a given; what’s truly subversive here is how affecting the movie is.
The set-up is simple enough: a homegrown jihad unit prepares to martyr itself by blowing up as many British infidels as it can. The story has a ripped-from-the-headlines veracity, and Morris recreates the world familiar from tabloid outrage of radicalised Yorkshire kids heading to training camps in Pakistan, practicing their video addresses and making bombs out of household chemicals. What gives the film its quintessentially Morris twist is that his martyrs are complete imbeciles. That training mission goes hysterically wrong when a rocket launcher is fired backwards, the filming sessions degenerate into bloopers and all of that explosive bleach has been bought from the same wholesaler by the same clueless bloke, whose own concession to secrecy is to disguise his voice…as a woman’s.
Morris’ perennial gifts are to the fore. There’s sharp linguistic invention, with nearly as much inventive swearing as In The Loop, with which this shares several co-writers, and a jihad rap that brings back happy memories of The Day Today’s Fur Q. Morris’ brilliant counter-intuitive logic devises madcap schemes (a flawed plot to bomb a mosque to rouse moderate mosques) and then mercilessly deconstructs them in a visual grammar everyone can understand – namely, a punch-up. And the bombers themselves are a line-up worthy of the fools’ gallery accumulated by Morris over the years.
Waj, played with gleeful stupidity by Fonejacker star Kayvan Novak, strains with permanently confused, constipated expressions as he attempts to fit his newfound anti-Western worldview over a life’s experience of consumer culture – “fuck mini Baby Bel,” he cries without irony. Beany-hatted Fessel, if anything, is even stupider as he trains crows to fly bombs into sex shops. Nad is a casual jihadist, a wannabe shock-rapper more interested in getting laid than splayed. Caucasian Barry (creator of the bomb-the-mosque conspiracy) has the in-too-deep zealotry of an overnight convert. These guys could find a brewery to organise a piss-up in, let alone inflict bodily harm on the nation.
However boldly sketched, these guys are caricatures one and all, but what differentiates Four Lions is the very real character at the film’s heart. The cell’s leader – Omar – is a happily married to a beautiful wife, a loving father, a nice guy with a job, who has an easygoing way with people, and rips the shit out of his devout brother’s Qu’ran-studying sessions because he’s found a far easier way of integrating faith with lifestyle. Unfortunately, it involves blowing himself up – and in Omar’s tragic contradictions, beautifully underplayed by Riz Ahmed, the film becomes far more profound than mere tabloid-baiting outrage.
It’s here that Morris’ gradual move from writer to director over the past decade really pays off, giving the narrative a far more organic, considered palette than might have seemed possible in the days of Brass Eye. If it wasn’t for the presence of Jam alumni Julia Davis and Kevin Eldon, you wouldn’t necessarily peg the aesthetic as Morris’ work at all. While the obvious targets are hit with unswerving accuracy, the intimate, fly-on-the-wall style gets under the skin of the characters in a way that, say, Nathan Barley’s glib scorn never achieved.
This is a portrait of a dead-end world where even apparently sane, contented men like Omar feel something is lacking. Morris’s eerie establishing shots keep zooming into the bombers’ living rooms from Kes-like panoramas of the impoverished, industrial north, decrepit terraced streets surrounding the false prophet of the Meadowhall shopping centre where Omar works. The accumulative effect is desperately sad, an indictment of a corporate culture that offers few viable alternatives to men of principle. Not that, behind the sloganeering, these guys actually have any principle – their resort to bombing as a fast-track to heaven is as hollow as wannabe singers warbling in front of Simon Cowell.
Things click in the final act, as the Lions’ scheme to attack the London Marathon unravels, not from brilliant detective work by counter-terrorist units (depicted, in the film’s more old-school Morris-isms, as bumbling idiots who continually take out the wrong target) but from self-doubt about the rightness of the cause. As Omar runs around in blind panic, literally headless in his oversized Honey Monster costume, the farcical nature of proceedings is overwhelmed by the realisation that he has nowhere to run. He seems to have turned a corner, but in a world where every Muslim – or, any Jean Charles DeMenes proved, anybody dark-skinned and vaguely suspicious-looking – can be profiled as a threat, what other option is there for a guy with aspirations? Morris’ trap clicks shut with inexorable logic, but echoes with a howl of despair.
May 2010 @ Simon Kinnear