Within the last decade’s fictional terrorists usually resides a dour, angry psyche (John Updike’s Terrorist offers the most well known example). Few artists have dared to suggest terrorists can be deadly and also farcical, worthy of comedic contempt. In Four Lions, British satirist Christopher Morris highlights the incompetence and buffoonery of a band of would-be martyrs. The result is a mixed bag, funny and remarkably humane, but disappointingly weightless. Still, it provides a welcome deflation of the terrorist mystique.
Four Lions follows a group of British suicide bombers as they execute their plan. Omar (Riz Ahmed) to all appearances has a comfortable middle class life, with a loving wife and young son. Yet he also speaks of a “spiritual void” within Western, materialist society. His friend Waj (Kayvan Novak) seems equally comfortable, with a dim-bulb eagerness to follow Omar anywhere, even to a training camp in Pakistan. Barry (Nigel Lindsay) has a sadistic, nihilist streak. He’s eager to “fast-track the final days” and subjects the junior recruits to demeaning hazing rituals. Hassan (Arsher Ali) demands attention through public spectacles; he also raps ineptly about jihad. And finally there’s meek Fessal (Adeel Akhtar), who wants to train crows to carry bombs.
Many positive reviews have lauded Morris’ nerve, more than one referring to the film’s “ballsy” humor, a humor the BBC veteran has previously demonstrated (most notably in Brass Eye). Here, though, he executes an unorthodox premise in a more or less straightforward way, as the film sticks with Omar and his crew. The handheld shots lend an air of intimacy to their antics, even as they reveal their incompetence.
It doesn’t take long. Journeying to a Pakistani training camp, Waj and Omar quickly make themselves unwelcome. Late for morning prayers, Waj argues that Mecca lies to the east, while Omar shows a serious misunderstanding of guerrilla tactics. Dismissed as dilettantes, the two return to England, where they find Barry planning to bomb a mosque, his attempt to provoke moderate Muslims into a general uprising. “The mosques have lost it. These are real bad times,” Barry says, without offering any evidence for such a general complaint. Like the others, he has little apparent concern for theology or history. At no point do they consider explain their actions or even to feel very committed to the religion they claim to believe in. To avoid his daily devotions, Waj uses a stuffed “prayer bear” with a tape loop. Squeeze the bear and it prays for you.
Even Omar, the most self-reflective member of the group, never explains his desire for martyrdom, or how he might understand the term. “What we do has to last, echo through the ages,” he tells them, without explaining why. To his son, he describes himself in the detached third person: “Even if he gets blown to bits, he’s going to die smiling.” And when his brother, an incessantly smug Muslim scholar, tells him, “There’s no justification for what you’re planning,” he responds that no one should have to justify self-defense. He delivers his point perfunctorily, though, as a list of grievances that sounds rehearsed and half-hearted.
The opacity of Omar’s motives gives Four Lions a darkly comedic undertone. While his fellow jihadists have clearer ambitions—celebrity and/or annihilation—Omar remains inexplicable. He lovingly tells his son bedtime stories based on The Lion King, casting himself as the cub, seeking immortality in death. He’s momentarily bewildered when his son questions his morality. In the next breath, though, he’s recommitted to his plan.
So used to seeing himself in this script, Omar is unmoored when he temporarily abandons his plot: he turns mopey and self-pitying. “You were a lot more fun when you were going to blow yourself up,” says his wife Sophia (Preeya Kalidas), a practical-minded nurse. And so the young family man resumes his plan, leading to an excruciating scene in which he tells Sophia goodbye. He appears at the hospital where she works; within earshot of security guards, he can speak only in code. “I’m going to take my team up to the top floor,” he tells her, “So I’ll see you up there.” In the context of a comedy, even one about incompetent terrorists, it’s an unsettlingly empathetic scene, almost demanding that viewers hold out hope against Omar’s apparently deepest wish. Amid the buffoonery, it’s a reminder of something deeper and more inscrutable, a desire for transcendence that is also tragic.