In the eight years since Richard Reid’s failure, the Underwear Bomber learnedÂ no more than to move the explosives from his feet to his groin. I still remember the fun comics had withÂ the sheer incompetence of the plot. Thereâ€™s always been an odd suspicion about just how skilled at their craft terrorists need to be to get the job done, and that suspicion forms the very heart of this weekendâ€™s movie recommendation. In Chris Morrisâ€™ black comedy Four Lions, the picture is clear: terrorists these days must not have a brain cell between them.
At its most straightforward, Four Lions is the story of four incompetent English men who turn to jihad in theirÂ rage against Western civilizationâ€™s irretrievable depravity. The story follows the foolish Waj (played by Kayvan Novak), the witless Faisal (played by Adeel Akhtar), the fervent convert Barry (played by Nigel Lindsay), and the leader Omar (played by Riz Ahmed). Together, the group assembles an improvised explosive device using parts theyâ€™ve procured through Amazon, and they deliberate about how to use the bomb for maximum effect by choosing whether to blow up the local Boots (too low-key), the internet (too metaphysically challenging), and the local mosque (â€œletâ€™s radicalize the moderates!â€ exclaims the pugnaciousÂ Barry).
Yet even the most ordinary happenstance is enough to throw their plans into total disarray. The â€œsafe-houseâ€ from which they were conspiring is hardly as safe as they anticipated. Nor, for that matter, is their training as rigorous as they had hoped. They are, quite possibly, the most blunderous terrorists ever to have declared holy war. The bomb they construct is too delicate to be relocated, the shock-videos they tape to warn infidels of coming atrocity are risibly unconvincing, and they canâ€™t even fire a bazooka in the right direction. Not even the â€˜realâ€™ terrorists are willing to take these four lion cubs seriously.
Which gets the heart of the matter. Four Lions isnâ€™t an effort to offer commentary about what makes homegrown terror so exigent a concern. And given that the four young men express only the most perfunctory views about Western civilization, itâ€™s apparent that this is not an effort to take seriously any deep theological or ideological clash from which terrorism putatively originates. Rather, the comic value in Four Lions derives showing that for the main characters, terrorism is motivated by nothing more than the search for approbation from anyoneâ€”anyoneâ€” who’ll offer it convincingly.Â For Waj and Faisal, theyâ€™ll do just about anything to follow Omar and Barry; Omar and Barry, in turn, will do anything to be taken seriously by the jihadists they hope to impress. This isnâ€™t about holy war at all â€“ itâ€™s about a sense of ordinary purpose.
Thatâ€™s not to say that Four Lions is even remotely apologetic toward terroristsâ€™ motivations. On the contrary, Morris has built a reputation for himself pointing fingers at just about anyoneâ€”whether the powerful or the dispossessedâ€”for claiming to be something they arenâ€™t, and he paints the four protagonists here in just as unsympathetic a light as his other work. The same comic irreverence appeared also in another film co-written by the same team as Four Lions, in the superb In the Loop (reviewed here) and in Morrisâ€™ own directorial contributions to Veep (lauded here).
But those who watch Four Lions in the hopes of finding commentary on how we respond to terror will leave disappointed. While the film ridicules the surveillance stateâ€™s laughably high estimation of terrorist competence, it goes no further in offering insight into why our fear of improvised explosive devices still manages to make some kind of sense. (Sidenote:Â Kahnemanâ€™s explanation of the representativeness fallacy is instructive here; he explains howÂ vivid moments capture our minds in ways that underplay their representativeness or frequency).
Like last week, when I reviewed another directorial debut, Four Lions was Morrisâ€™ first feature-length film. It isnâ€™t polished by any means, but thatâ€™s preciselyÂ the point. It’s all supposed to be a bit…clumsy.