(some minor spoilers ahead)
Four Lions is a movie that you wouldn’t think exists. It’s brilliant in many ways but it is an unlikely success. The story of five suicide bombers as a comedy could have gone in many wrong directions but Christopher Morris directs this movie so skilfully and determinedly that there never is a wrong beat. The acting is wonderful, the documentary style works and above all the movie is extremely funny. I was laughing out loud several times and that doesn’t happen very often. What a little amazing clever and utterly uncompromising movie this is.
It takes a topic that is highly controversial, sets out to do something with it and just goes through with it until the bitter end. In our time, terrorism has replaced communism as the threat that keeps the world in check. It is an excuse for anything our governments do, no matter how illegal (torture, drones, mass surveillance), without much proof that it is that big a threat. The idea of terrorism is so powerful that since 9/11 we don’t need real terrorism to keep us under control. The idea lives mostly from the image of the Islamic fanatic who wants to blow up Western civilization. But the movie turns this idea on its head completely because there basically is no one who fits that stereotype. These are mostly normal people. Some are stupid, some are annoying, some have other ambitions but still join and their leader, Omar (Riz Ahmed), is intelligent, has a family and a steady job. No sleepers living in solitude in apartments waiting for their mission. Just five guys who plan a suicide mission and are not very good at it. But the movie somehow does not even make fun of them. Sure, you laugh at their endless stupidity but you also like them. Well, except Barry (Nigel Lindsay), but even his annoying behaviour feels simply human.
It is not made clear why they want to become martyrs. It seems to appeal to them to become something bigger and to have a certain power that they obviously lack in their life. But no one seems to be fanatical about it, especially not when it comes to religion. In fact, Omar is actually opposed to his very religious brother Ahmed (Wasim Zakir). He makes fun of him and actually despises his religious self-righteousness. There is a scene where Omar wants to talk to him because he’s desperate but then he sees that self-righteous ‘face’ and he just can’t stand it. So he can’t stand someone who claims to be better than you because of religion. Again, this throws the terrorist stereotype out of the window. The fanatic is against terrorism and the terrorist doesn’t like religion.
The best part of the movie are the scenes with Omar’s family. He has a wife and a son, they all love each other and there are no conflicts. And both his son and his wife know exactly what he is planning to do and they are fine with it. When you see Omar’s wife encouraging him to continue with his plan and his son hugging him for support, you feel so uncomfortable because none of this fits into any category that you thought you knew. And I love that so much. This is what movies should be able to achieve, to make you question your pre-conceived ideas that govern the way you live. “Terrorist = evil” is so much easier than “terrorist = happy man who is supported by his family and has a decent job”.
Sure, the movie does not make clear why they all want to do it and if you want to, you can criticize the movie for it. Are they unhappy with their small-time lives? Are they pissed that life hasn’t given them more meaning? Do they want to feel appreciated and cool? The movie gives many clues that those are some of the reasons. But if that’s the case, how many people feel the same way? How many don’t feel that way?
In the end, almost all of the characters realize that blowing yourself up is maybe not the best way out. They had believed it was their only way to get where they wanted to be, but then they see that it’s not. I’m not spoiling what’s happening to them but you can’t help but wonder what they would have done, if they had known of some alternatives to suicide martyrdom. I would argue that thought-provoking movies like Four Lions can affect more change than anything you learn in school. What a surprising gem of brilliance this movie is.
see also DMZ: No Future