) - handing over prisoners to countries where torture is allowed.
This year's fall Oscar hopefuls are going to have to try a lot harder than "Rendition," a stale, murky drama so oversimplified that its politics boil down to a single tidy, elementary-level message: torture is bad. Director Gavin Wood (2006's "Tsotsi") and first-time screenwriter Kelley Sane have few tricks up their sleeve besides their sly toying with conventional timelines in the last act, while the prestigious cast is squandered to the point of criminality. Every actor, bar none, is wasted in paper-thin parts that match the story's lack of depth.
Douglas Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal), a CIA analyst who narrowly escapes a deadly civilian bombing in a North African town square, is called upon by icy homeland security head Corrinne Whitman (Meryl Streep) to stand as the U.S.'s witness to the extreme and violent form of interrogation that befalls the Egyptian-born Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally). As Anwar, suspected of having terrorist affiliations, is tortured at the hands of Arabic interrogator Abasi Falwai (Igal Naor), Douglas finds himself unprepared for the nightmarish images he must bear witness to and the unsettling truths that the act of renditioning hold. Back in the U.S., Anwar's pregnant American wife, Isabella (Reese Witherspoon), is determined to get answers about her husband's disappearance and travels to Washington, D.C., to seek the help of old college friend Alan Smith (Peter Sarsgaard), himself an aide to Senator Hawkins (Alan Arkin).
Throughout "Rendition," the viewer can't help but sense something is off about the whole film. The plot, which jumps back and forth between countries and separate groups of characters, doesn't offer anything new or special to the onslaught of pictures recently being made about U.S.-Middle East relations. Like the pat, too-obvious "The Kingdom
," the subject matter that "Rendition" touches on is deserving of a closer, more complex inspection than it receives. As for the scenes of tortureAnwar, his guilt or innocence left ambiguous, is tied up, choked, suffocated, electrocuted, etc. as a means of physically pulling critical information from himthey eerily recall the likes of "Saw
" and "Hostel
," only with less going on beneath the surface.
Jack Gyllenhaal (2007's "Zodiac
") furrows his brow and strikes a bunch of serious poses as the in-over-his-head Douglas Freeman. Reese Witherspoon (2005's "Walk the Line
") walks around with facial expressions that range from concerned to bewildered as Isabella. Meryl Streep (2007's "Evening
") is deliciously wicked as CIA mover-and-shaker Corrinne Whitman, seemingly showing up for what couldn't have amounted to more than a few days' work. Alan Arkin (2004's "The Aviator
") barely shows up at all as Senator Hawkins. Peter Sarsgaard (2007's "Year of the Dog
") does more with his limited screen time than Gyllenhaal and Witherspoon do with their larger roles as Alan Smith, a jealous but loyal man still withholding a flame for Isabella. Perhaps the most complete and emotionally true performances go to the little-known Moa Khoas (2005's "Munich
") and Zineb Oukach (in her film debut) as a young Arabic couple whose fates are inextricably linked to the other characters.
Overwhelmingly ineffectual and unsatisfying, "Rendition" goes nowhere. Save for a heated confrontation between Peter Sarsgaard and Meryl Streep that momentarily breathes pulsating life into the story, the A-list actors have precious little to work with. When all is said and done, the film is a well-meaning, well-shot, but truly mediocre piece of work. Walking out of the theater, the only lasting emotion is one of regrettable emptiness.