While big-budget Hollywood films are just now gingerly dipping their toes in the pool of complex, volatile issues surrounding 9-11, a slew of indie efforts are busy wading into the waters usually way over their heads. The latest in need of a life raft: the new psychological thriller The War Within. Relentless in its attempts to provoke but maddeningly simplistic in most other respects, this terrorist-among-us tale shows a great deal of promise in its opening stretch, before succumbing to amateurish, connect-the-dots storytelling. Even the title reads like one of those empty media catchphrases you might see splashed everywhere from Readers Digest to a 10th-graders research report.
Its a shame that the ideas are so half-baked, because the filmmaking shows a great deal of ingenuity for such a small budget. The gritty, low-light realism and the eerie sound track are a nod to Steven Soderberghs Traffic, and the atmosphere helps flesh out a story that would otherwise have trouble filling an episode of 24.
Star and co-writer Ayad Akhtar plays Hassan, a conflicted would-be suicide bomber preparing for an attack on Grand Central Terminal. Sent from Pakistan by shadowy, unnamed forces clearly, Al Qaeda is meant to spring to mind Hassan goes against his sleeper cells suggestions and stays with the family of a childhood friend (Firdous Bamji) in New Jersey. Its not the lowest profile for a terrorist to keep, and living with the decent, well-adjusted clan brings on a crisis of conscience in Hassan. Still, he sticks with the plan. Lest we forget the mind-set of a suicide bomber, the voice-over makes it perfectly clear: What I am about to do is what I am, Hassan intones.
The War Within is a strange beast, flip-flopping between film noir thrills and ponderous philosophical arguments. The two styles chafe against each other; the will-he-or-wont-he suspense gives the film an unsavory, exploitative feel. Whats most intriguing is how Hassan, a once-docile engineering student, could be converted to radical fundamentalism, but this is mostly ignored, aside from a few brief flashbacks that sketch in his brothers radical fundamentalism and Hassans guilt-by-association punishment at the hands of American forces.
The scripts flaws might not matter so much if a better actor were cast in the lead, but first-time thespian Akhtar doesnt yet have the skills to convincingly portray such a darkly conflicted character. The seasoned pros in the supporting cast, such as Bamji, only highlight Akhtars weaknesses. With sunken eyes and a gaping-mouth stare, Hassan is obviously meant to look shell-shocked, but Akhtar mostly just comes off as dull and perplexed which is a rather accurate description of the film as a whole.
At the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111).
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].