Four Lions: Can Terrorism Be Funny?

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Four Lions, released in the UK earlier this year and shown last night as the closing film of the Friars Club Comedy Film Festival, follows a group of British Jihadists bent on committing an act of terror. As we left, a woman was on the phone, giving her instant review: “I just left the absolutely worst movie I have ever seen. It was just awful. Ugh.”

In the film, the Jihadists’ entire process is documented: two of them go to Pakistan to get some training from Al-Qeada, one is recruited from a talk on moderate Muslims in British culture. They buy bomb supplies, build and test their bombs, and actively avoid attention from police and neighbors alike.

The film goes out of its way to show that these guys aren’t traditional Muslims. Barry, the most hardcore and aggressive of the group, is the only non-Arab, yet is also the only one who wears

traditional clothes and claims any sort of religious inspiration concerning their plot. He tells one young man he’s trying to recruit that they’re motivated to commit violence because “women are talking back, people are playing stringed instruments.” He later declares that their target should be a mosque in order to “radicalize the moderates.”

Meanwhile, Omar, the protagonist, never mentions religion or appears to observe any religious traditions. He dresses in normal clothes and keeps a trimmed, almost hip beard. His wife and young son, who are both creepily on board with his plans, are equally westernized, with Omar relating his plans to his son through a perverted version of The Lion King story. Simba, you see, is a Jihadist, while Scar represents the West.

Omar’s brother, on the other hand, is a traditional, observant Muslim, and he tries to talk Omar out of following through on his plan. Omar actively despises him for always talking about rules and for constantly quoting the Koran. Omar doesn’t have time for Islam; he’s got bombs to make.

And, really, without the expected religious motivations, the characters truly have no reason to be doing what they’re doing. There’s vague talk of American capitalism and the Jews, but they are clearly not smart enough to have well-considered motivations.

In general, a lack of clear motivation is a bad sign in a movie. If all of your main characters are stupid and have no reason to be doing what they’re doing, it sucks you out of a film. But here, it makes a point. These are no sophisticated members of a global Muslim conspiracy; they aren’t a part of any terrorist cell. They’re just an isolated group of misguided, imbeciles who are egging each other on towards a goal that none of them seem to fully comprehend. And that specificity makes the plot feel more real and somehow more comforting/less threatening at the same time.

Without spoiling too much of the ending, innocent people do end up dying in the movie. Bombs are detonated, black smoke billows up, and people are terrified. And the movie barely gives these events any weight, moving on right past them like they’re any other wacky plot point. It’s shocking to see such horrifying images be treated so cavalierly.

But it gets away with not treating these events with weight because, at this point, images of terror, both fictional and real, are so commonplace that we naturally bring a weight to them. To skirt around them would cheapen the topic and feel somehow more exploitative, while to try to seriously address them would drag it towards preachy drama. It remains a comedy by treating these images lightly, but it’s still impossible for the audience to see them for anything but what they are: horrifying.

What keeps the film from being merely upsetting and difficult to watch is how fucking funny it is. The dialogue is fast-paced bickering over semantics and logic, among characters that are all idiots, yet smart enough to confound each other. In one scene, when Barry is trying to convince the others that bombing a mosque is a good idea, Omar tries to dissuade the group by using the metaphor of someone needing to get worked up into fighting an antagonist. So, they all punch themselves in the face. Naturally, he gets Barry angry enough to punch himself in the face.

It’s brilliantly written, with almost no scenes falling flat. The plot and structure are oddly familiar for a film with such extreme subject matter: a group of bumbling, incompetent idiots trying to accomplish a task that is clearly out of their league. In that regard, it is what I was expecting going in. But it follows the structure well beyond where I thought they would be able to.

I can certainly understand the point of view of the thoroughly upset woman on the phone. There are scenes, particularly at the end of the film, that are much more upsetting than they are funny.

But why are any topics off-limit for a comedy to take on? There have been comedies about death, about war, about the Holocaust. For me, Four Lions manages to take a topic that is about as controversial and raw as it gets and makes it funny without trivializing it. It never stoops to racist jokes and caricatures, and it doesn’t avoid the most difficult aspects of its subject matter. Movies this brave are rare, and movies this brave that are also hilarious are rarer still.