While big-budget Hollywood films are just now gingerly dipping their toes in the pool of complex, volatile issues surrounding 9-11, a slew of indie efforts are busy wading into the waters — usually way over their heads. The latest in need of a life raft: the new psychological thriller The War Within. Relentless in its attempts to provoke but maddeningly simplistic in most other respects, this terrorist-among-us tale shows a great deal of promise in its opening stretch, before succumbing to amateurish, connect-the-dots storytelling. Even the title reads like one of those empty media catchphrases you might see splashed everywhere from Reader’s Digest to a 10th-grader’s research report.

It’s a shame that the ideas are so half-baked, because the filmmaking shows a great deal of ingenuity for such a small budget. The gritty, low-light realism and the eerie sound track are a nod to Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic, and the atmosphere helps flesh out a story that would otherwise have trouble filling an episode of 24.

Star and co-writer Ayad Akhtar plays Hassan, a conflicted would-be suicide bomber preparing for an attack on Grand Central Terminal. Sent from Pakistan by shadowy, unnamed forces — clearly, Al Qaeda is meant to spring to mind — Hassan goes against his sleeper cell’s suggestions and stays with the family of a childhood friend (Firdous Bamji) in New Jersey. It’s not the lowest profile for a terrorist to keep, and living with the decent, well-adjusted clan brings on a crisis of conscience in Hassan. Still, he sticks with the plan. Lest we forget the mind-set of a suicide bomber, the voice-over makes it perfectly clear: “What I am about to do is what I am,” Hassan intones.

The War Within is a strange beast, flip-flopping between film noir thrills and ponderous philosophical arguments. The two styles chafe against each other; the will-he-or-won’t-he suspense gives the film an unsavory, exploitative feel. What’s most intriguing is how Hassan, a once-docile engineering student, could be converted to radical fundamentalism, but this is mostly ignored, aside from a few brief flashbacks that sketch in his brother’s radical fundamentalism and Hassan’s guilt-by-association punishment at the hands of American forces.

The script’s flaws might not matter so much if a better actor were cast in the lead, but first-time thespian Akhtar doesn’t yet have the skills to convincingly portray such a darkly conflicted character. The seasoned pros in the supporting cast, such as Bamji, only highlight Akhtar’s weaknesses. With sunken eyes and a gaping-mouth stare, Hassan is obviously meant to look shell-shocked, but Akhtar mostly just comes off as dull and perplexed — which is a rather accurate description of the film as a whole.


At the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111).

Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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