“Rendition” is anti-torture propaganda, but only in the most timid, abstract sense. Directed by Oscar-winner Gavin Hood (“Tsotsi”), the film shies away from the explicit side of its subject matter, never exposing its audience to the brutality of torture, never forcing them to go beyond their polite objections to that horrible practice. While it starts off by blitzing its audience with fast cuts and explosions, such roaring eventually fades, leaving us with a boring film that can’t bring itself to scare us into changing our country’s stance on torture.
The film’s plot centers around the CIA’s practice of extraordinary rendition, a measure the New Yorker once referred to as “outsourced torture.” In extraordinary rendition, the CIA takes terrorist suspects and sends them to be interrogated in foreign countries, usually places that ignore the Geneva Convention. “Rendition” is an unabashed criticism of the process, depicting the torture of Anwar El-Ibrahimi (“Munich”), an innocent family man who the CIA falsely suspects of having aided terrorists. Upon arriving in the States from a trip abroad, Ibrahimi is kidnapped and shipped off to a mysterious, poorly lit interrogation compound, where he is to be questioned and tortured under the supervision of CIA agent Douglas Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal). Meanwhile, Ibrahimi’s wife Isabella (Reese Witherspoon) runs around Washington, D.C., crying a lot as she tries to find someone who can tell her where her husband went. Their son cries, too. Torture is sad, if invisible.
The pretty, youthful leads don’t sink “Rendition,” though at first glance they’d appear to be likely suspects. Witherspoon may have won Best Actress in 2005, but she still trails a cloud of legally blonde glitter wherever she goes, and though he’s starred in intense, political films in the past (“Jarhead”), Jake Gyllenhaal is so attractive that it’s hard to imagine him existing anywhere so dirty as an interrogation compound. Hood uses the pretty visages to his advantage, however — by destroying them. He knocks out Witherspoon from the get-go by somehow making her both pregnant and sallow, an impressive feat of make-up artistry and camera angles. He spends more time on Gyllenhaal, breaking him down more gradually, letting him start off sleek and sexy but then smothering his face in fake dirt and blood as the torturing progresses. By the film’s end, Gyllenhaal is disheveled, poorly dressed and scarred, and Witherspoon is still sallow. The message is clear: torturing innocent people makes our actors ugly and our actresses pregnant. By depriving them of eye candy, Hood forces filmgoers to recognize the true price of human rights violations.
That might seem like a callous statement, but Rendition never makes torture seem any scarier than that. No, it is not the pretty faces of the actors that sink Rendition; it is Hood. The problem is that, once Ibrahimi’s torture begins, the audience never feels the need for it to end (as someone watching “The Deer Hunter” needs, absolutely needs, the Russian roulette scene to end). Hood’s film preaches how awful and grotesque it is to torture people in the 21st century, but he seems hesitant to inflict a torture scene on his audience. Instead, we only catch polite glimpses of the torture beginning and ending, and are never forced to sit through an entire session. The audience is thus never allowed to react against torture viscerally, and in the end only feels the same reasoned disgust with the practice that they’ve probably felt their whole lives. At the preview I attended at the Whitney Humanities Center, people cheered when a character harped on the abstract ideals of the Constitution, but not when Gyllenhaal went vigilante and actually freed Ibrahimi from his imprisonment. The Constitution part articulated Yalies’ liberal beliefs in glorious, cinematic fashion; the latter only allowed the film to come to a close.
Almost to a close. Hood chooses to send “Rendition” off with what has to be one of the most gimmicky endings of 2007. Hood wants to show that inhumane practices like torture only perpetuate endless cycles of violence, but such a contrived and unmoving ending won’t convince anyone who doesn’t already believe that (and I think that most people who go to see this film will already believe that). Like the rest of “Rendition,” the ending is intellectual and ineffective, a wasted opportunity to involve its audience in the physical, unspeakable depravity of torture, a wasted opportunity to make them see it differently.