The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Movie Information

The Story: A tale told in flashback about the transformation of an America-loving Pakistani into a radical — possibly terrorist — professor. The Lowdown: Complex cultural examination of a young Pakistani — brilliantly played by Riz Ahmed — tied to a thriller/suspense frame. It doesn't all work, but it's still compelling.
Genre: Thriller Drama
Director: Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding)
Starring: Riz Ahmed, Kate Hudson, Liev Schreiber, Kiefer Sutherland, Om Puri
Rated: R

Here is a film that is quite possibly too ambitious for its own good. The movie, based on the novel by Moshin Hamid, attempts to be both a character-driven culture clash story and a thriller, but it goes a step further in exploring its main Muslim character’s role in post-9/11 America, along with his American counterpart’s role in post-9/11 Pakistan. This is a lot to pack into two hours of movie — and Ms. Nair isn’t entirely successful in the attempt, but that doesn’t diminish the attempt, nor those parts of it that succeed. The very fact that Nair — who is very at home on the subject of culture clashes — tackled a thriller is noteworthy, as is the fact that she doesn’t blow it. That she made a film where I didn’t spend the entire time wishing Kate Hudson was elsewhere is an achievement in its own right.

At the center of the story is Changez, a young, Princeton-educated, America-loving Pakistani, who went to America to live the, yes, American Dream. Changez is played by the incredible Riz Ahmed — whom a handful of you may remember as the much-beleagured terrorist in the little-seen black comedy Four Lions (2010). Without him, the movie would be unthinkable. Changez is from an upscale and not particularly religious background, and he slides quite comfortably into the corporate and social world of America before 9/11 — becoming a hotshot player at a big consulting firm and falling in love with Erica (Kate Hudson), an artist/photographer. Everything is going his way until the terrorist attacks that change the rules. Suddenly, he finds himself being subjected to racial profiling and suspicion from all sides (including his own mind). This — and a crise de consience of another kind — cause him to chuck it all and return to Pakistan where he becomes a radical professor who may or may not be part of a terrorist group.

The question of who he is fuels the thriller aspect and frames the film. The background story outlined above is told in flashbacks to American reporter Bobby Lincoln (Liev Schreiber), who may be more than a reporter and who is certainly working for the CIA. Suspense is generated over a kidnapped American professor and growing tensions in the country. But the suspense only partly works — mostly because it feels less honest than the questions surrounding it, and less interesting than whether Changez was a reluctant fundamentalist capitalist or is now a reluctant fundamentalist radical — and whether either of these characterizations define him. Flawed but fascinating and well worth a look — if you bear in mind Changez’s warning at the onset that looks can be deceiving. Rated R for language, some violence and brief sexuality.

Playing at Carolina Cinemas

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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3 thoughts on “The Reluctant Fundamentalist

  1. Big Al

    I was blown away by this one. Again, a 2-hour run time and not one part of me cared.

    It was a huge improvement over a mediocre novel which left me asking “what was your point” and “why does this matter?” Ironically, the book’s author co-wrote the screenplay, but got it way right this time. There was no question of what this film was trying to say and I hope that its’ message will come through loud and clear, even to those bumpkins who still think “we’ll put a boot in yer ass, it’s the American way”.
    Unfortunately, I was one of 3 patrons at the showing, so I am not hopeful.

  2. Ken Hanke

    I was one of 3 patrons at the showing, so I am not hopeful.

    Yeah, I had a feeling this was going to go wanting.

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