When I was about 14 or 15, I saw a generally forgotten little romantic comedy with Joel McCrea and Joan Bennett called Two in a Crowd (1936). One of several aspects of this film that stuck with me over the years was a brief scene in which McCrea and Bennett rather cruelly mock a woman (Alison Skipworth) to whom McCrea owes a debt. Afterwards Bennett remarks that she feels sorry for the woman. “So do I, but if we don’t hate those we’ve wronged, we break our hearts,” remarks McCrea philosophically. That’s a pretty heavy concept for a teenager to wrestle with, even though, as a defense mechanism, substituting hatred for guilt may be more common to kids than it is to adults.
I bring this up because, to me, it’s a very central theme in Marc Forster’s film The Kite Runner, a flawed but extremely involving work. In fact, that theme—and the need to expiate the subsequent guilt that inevitably resurfaces—is far more at the core of the story than the socio-political and adventure aspects that fill out its plot.
The premise concerns two boys in pre-Soviet-invasion Afghanistan. One is Amir (Zekeria Ebrahimi), the son of a wealthy intellectual, Baba (Homayoun Ershadi). The other is Hassan (Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada), the son of the family servant. Despite the class distinction between the two, the boys are close friends. Hassan, in particular, is fiercely devoted to Amir. This changes following a kite-flying competition in which Hassan—known for his ability to run after and retrieve kites—fetches a kite Amir has succeeded in cutting loose with the string of his own kite. Hassan secures the kite, but is attacked by another upper-class boy, Assef (Elham Ehsas), and his companions. Assef gives Hassan the chance to give him the kite, but Hassan stubbornly refuses because he got it for Amir.
As punishment (and implicitly for other reasons, which only become clear late in the film), Assef rapes Hassan—an event witnessed by Amir, who does nothing to intercede. Amir’s guilt in the matter manifests itself in a growing hatred for his friend—to the point where he tries to get his father, Baba, to hire new servants. When this fails, he resorts to framing Hassan for a robbery. This also fails, but the situation has become so insupportable that Hassan’s father (Nabi Tanha) insists they leave. Not long after that, the Soviets invade, causing Baba and Amir to flee to America.
All this is told in flashback. The film opens with a call to the adult Amir (Khalid Abdalla, United 93) telling him he needs to come home. The reason for this turns out to be that Hassan is dead and has left an orphan son. In Amir’s mind rescuing the son of his betrayed friend (who never understood that he was betrayed) would function as some measure of redemption. This much of the film is fine, and there’s really nothing wrong with the scenes of Amir going to Pakistan and Afghanistan to find the boy—even though some of the plot points become shamelessly contrived (not always in a bad way, I should note). My problem with this section of the film—apart from Amir’s patently bogus Smith Bros. Cough Drop beard that preposterously manages to bamboozle most of the Taliban—is that it feels a little out of keeping with the tone of the larger movie.
However, there’s no denying that the suspense of these scenes is well achieved, and without giving away too much, it’s fair to say that the film dodges becoming a standard action movie. Ultimately, the story comes back to a point where Amir is presented with a chance at truly redeeming himself—in ways that have nothing to do with rescuing the boy, but in the role he chooses to take after the fact. Flawed, but emotionally powerful all the same, The Kite Runner doesn’t rank quite up there with Marc Forster’s best work, but it still shows him as one of the best filmmakers at work today. Rated PG-13 for strong thematic material, including the rape of a child, violence and brief strong language.