The Reluctant Fundamentalist

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Wednesday April 24, 2013

Riz Ahmed stars in ’The Reluctant Fundamentalist’
Riz Ahmed stars in ’The Reluctant Fundamentalist’  (Source:IFC Films)

Mira Nair's lens has looked without flinching on the lives of India's street children ("Salaam, Bombay"), at lives caught in cultural cross-currents ("Mississippi Masala"), and at the intricate connections comprising family ("Monsoon Wedding"). Now she tries her hand at something new.

"The Reluctant Fundamentalist," based on the 2007 novel by Mohsin Hamed, is many things at once: A thriller in the procedural mode; a post-9/11 drama; a comment on a plethora of national and global issues, from terrorism to economics to business practices to the erosion of traditional culture and lore.

The film's many aspects don't all work equally well. In present-day Pakistan, a CIA operative named (with irony that's perhaps a little too-spot on) Lincoln (Liev Schreiber) questions a local university professor named Changez (Riz Ahmed) about the kidnapping of an American citizen.

Lincoln pressures Changez to give up the location of the kidnap victim before a military-style response ignites escalating tensions; at the same time, he pleads with his superiors to hold off, convinced that he can bring the situation to a peaceful resolution if he can only make a connection with Changez.

But Lincoln might be barking up the wrong tree. As Changez relates the story of his privileged youth (suburbia, Princeton) and his career as a Wall Street analyst, he seems as American as any apple-pie eating guy from the heartland. His story grows darker and angrier as he describes the injustices meted out to him by the people of a fearful and suspicious nation after the attacks of September 11, 2001.

Worse is the way a former girlfriend (played by Kate Hudson) handled their relationship; in her naivete, Erica seemingly thought it would be okay to make art out of his pillow talk, literally putting his words into neon.

Romantically disappointed, disillusioned by his career as a job-killing industrial analyst, interrogated repeatedly because of his religion and the color of his skin, Changez has fled to Pakistan to create a new life and help his nation toward a brighter future. If he's incensed at being accosted and accused by an American in authority yet again -- and on his home turf, no less -- it's perhaps understandable. But does his resentment mean that Changez is an enemy? Or has that enmity simply been assigned to him?

The film is replete with suggestions of surveillance, whether through hidden cameras or the always-staring eye of society at large: Its norms, its easy categorizations. What's harder to parse is the man behind a beard or beneath a turban. The story is his slowly mounting anger makes Changez the most compelling part of the film; the hostage crisis and impending conflict with American forces seems tepid and forced by comparison.

Fortunately, most of the movie consists of the flashbacks that trace Changez's journey, though the ending (which is both obvious and preachy) is something of a letdown.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.