I was expecting big things from Rendition and I wasn't that disappointed. After all it stars Jake Gyllenhaal, Peter Sarsgaard, Meryl Streep, Reese Witherspoon and Alan Arkin, and is directed by Gavin Hood who brought us Totsi (Filmstalker review). How could that not work?
To top it all, the story is about a man who is grabbed by the American government and illegally deported to a country where torture is regular practice on prisoners, guilty or innocent. He is believed to have had terrorist connections and without warning he's kidnapped and the government try to keep it quiet.
Once he's kidnapped any trace of him disembarking is erased and his pregnant wife has to travel to Washington and try and prove he was taken, and fight for his safe return. All the time he's being tortured by a foreign police force with the supervision of a CIA analyst who is struggling with what he is a part of.
The story is an absolute corker, focusing on an issue that many people find is a contentious issue right now, and another illegal and immoral act that America is carrying out under the guise of National Security, anti-terror, and the events of September the 11th.
What is really impressive about the film is that it doesn't take a clear standpoint and does manage to present a balanced view from all sides. It doesn't try and demonise the country who are carrying out the interrogations on behalf of the U.S., nor does it demonise the people involved. If anything it throws back worst on the politicians sanctioning the practice and the system that protects them.
It also manages to stand good ground between what is right and wrong. There are some issues that it presents very clearly as being wrong, such as the torture, but it does it through reasoned argument, and that's true for a lot of the normally black and white issues in the film, it shows people who take both sides of the issue with their reasoning and leaves decisions on right and wrong to the viewer. As Jake Gyllenhaal has said himself, this isn't a film that preaches.
The other superb thing about this film is the turnaround. Now don't panic, there will be no spoilers here, but let me put it like this. I'm a seasoned film viewer and I can usually guess twists and turns well before they happen, and even if I don't they often don't really surprise me. This did.
When the turnaround came I mouthed out the words "oh my god" as I realised what was happening, and that was as it happened on screen. The story was superbly written and crafted for this point, and really did a great job of building it up and turning it around. I loved that aspect.
Overall the script is excellently written, the dialogue and characters are very real and believable, such as Peter Sarsgaard who plays the Senator's assistant. He fights the corner of the wife of the missing husband until he realises the weight of political pressure against him and the possibilities of his ruined career, and behaves like a real person in that situation and not the idyllic world of Hollywood morale crusading.
The direction is good and it never takes over from the story telling, keeping you solely focused on the characters, building the tension, delivering strong pacing and hiding the turn around as well as the conclusion.
However it is in the conclusion where I feel the film lets us down slightly. It's hard to talk about without giving anything away, but suffice to say there are really two endings, one in the foreign country where the interrogation takes place, and one in the United States. Each of these has an ending befitting the storyline and the audience expectations, and this means that the U.S. one is slightly contrived and overly cheesy. At least though it is left until the final moments and made to tick all the boxes at the last moment, saving some of the power of the previous overseas ending.
The acting and the characters are probably what surprised me the most about the film as the expected big hitters weren't who really stole the show.
For me Jake Gyllenhaal, who plays the CIA analyst, didn't bring enough emotion or strength to the performance and played his character very low key. I can see this working in some scenes, but surely he's not that stunned or indifferent throughout his entire journey. He does have one good moment though, when he delivers the Shakespeare quote speech.
Reese Witherspoon, playing the wife of the rendition victim, is one of the stronger leads, she has some really great emotional scenes and carries them very well. She is the one that really pulls you in and makes you feel for the characters and their situation.
Yet her scenes seem somewhat short, and just enough for her to get across the point of the moment and move on, perhaps a little more time in some of her scenes and seeing her as a bit more than the upset wife.
Meryl Streep also seems underused. You can see that her performance calls for little emotion and needs to be detached and unfeeling, but there are times when I would have liked to have seen that façade crack a little more, and times when it should have.
Sarsgaard was very good in his role though. I felt he captured helplessness and yet strong desire to do the right thing really well, he felt the most real of all the characters, perhaps because it hit a very personal reality for me.
Alan Arkin plays the Senator himself, and while he has the least time on screen he plays it superbly well. His powerful speech to Sarsgaard was superb and carried a strong feeling of fear, not just of preaching.
Yet the real strength of the acting lies in the Middle Eastern stars, for me they really did steal the film.
Omar Metwally plays the victim of rendition and gives a convincingly scared and tortured performance, but it's Yigal Naor who would win the best performance in the film. He gives the strongest performance throughout, and come the end of the film, coupled with Laila Mrabti, delivers the most emotional and painful moment of the scene.
That scene really does steal the ending and in many ways should have been the true final scene of the film.
Rendition is a very strong film that builds slowly. It delivers a powerful turn around and strong emotional and impartial messages. Although the big name actors don't deliver the performance of the Middle Eastern stars, the acting is strong. However a final scene snip, some tightening of the first half and a bit more punch to a couple of the characters could have improved the film. Well worth watching.