Weekend Film Recommendation: Four Lions

In the eight years since Richard Reid’s failure, the Underwear Bomber learned no more than to move the explosives from his feet to his groin. I still remember the fun comics had with the sheer incompetence of the plot. There’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 weekend’s movie recommendation. In Chris Morris’ 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 their rage against Western civilization’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 they’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 (“let’s radicalize the moderates!” exclaims the pugnacious Barry).

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Yet even the most ordinary happenstance is enough to throw their plans into total disarray. The “safe-house” 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 can’t even fire a bazooka in the right direction. Not even the ‘real’ terrorists are willing to take these four lion cubs seriously.

Which gets the heart of the matter. Four Lions isn’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, it’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 anyone—anyone— who’ll offer it convincingly. For Waj and Faisal, they’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 isn’t about holy war at all – it’s about a sense of ordinary purpose.

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That’s not to say that Four Lions is even remotely apologetic toward terrorists’ motivations. On the contrary, Morris has built a reputation for himself pointing fingers at just about anyone—whether the powerful or the dispossessed—for claiming to be something they aren’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 Morris’ 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 state’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: Kahneman’s explanation of the representativeness fallacy is instructive here; he explains how 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 Morris’ first feature-length film. It isn’t polished by any means, but that’s precisely the point. It’s all supposed to be a bit…clumsy.

2 thoughts on “Weekend Film Recommendation: Four Lions”

  1. Never heard of this one, but am putting it on my list. I think humor has been underdeployed regarding terrorism and this sounds perfect.

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