A movie with too many subplots can be torture -- in the case of "Rendition," literally.
The timely title refers to the dubious U.S. procedure whereby suspected terrorists can be whisked away to countries where physical abuse is a legal part of interrogation. You couldn't ask for a more hot-button topic, or a hotter cast and director than those at hand. But they could've asked for a better script.
The one they're stuck with has Egyptian-born, American-educated chemist Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally) disappearing on his way home to America from a conference in South Africa. His increasingly frantic -- and increasingly pregnant -- wife Isabella (Reese Witherspoon) can't get a clue as to the reason or his whereabouts.
That's because CIA executive Meryl Streep has uttered the chilling order: "Put him on the plane" to a secret detention facility somewhere in North Africa.
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Meryl Streep, Peter Sarsgaard, Alan Arkin, Reese Witherspoon.
Rating: R for scenes of torture and violence and for language.
A suicide bombing in that unnamed country just killed a CIA officer. Seems that Anwar's cell phone received calls from someone who, coincidentally or not, has the same name as a terrorist.
That's enough evidence for Meryl. It's not quite enough for CIA analyst Doug Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal), who is dispatched as an observer to the dungeon where professional torturer Abasi (Igal Naor) plies his trade.
Abasi lays down the rules to Doug: "No questions or interference while I work. The work we do is sacred. We save lives."
Doug, on the squeamish side, isn't so sure: "This is my first torture," he wryly apologizes.
Desperate Witherspoon seeks help from an ex-boyfriend (Peter Sarsgaard), a top aide to a senator (Alan Arkin), and almost -- but not quite -- gets it. Meanwhile, back at the dungeon, the torturer-in-chief worries about his own daughter's disappearance and her romantic involvement with a suspected radical.
Are you following all this? Paying attention? You'd better, if you want to keep track of the multiple storylines, which are well-paced and juxtaposed, for a while. Eventually, though, the subplots get in the way and devolve from intriguing to annoying.
Director Gavin Hood ("Tsotsi") aims to shock us with wrongs perpetrated in the name of the "war on terror." Mission accomplished. The hoods, the electrodes, the beatings, the humiliation -- all stomach-churning to watch. Metwally deserves some sort of virtual Amnesty award for the sheer quantity of time spent screaming in agony while strapped naked and terrified to a chair.
But key cast members struggle with stereotypical characters, notably, the distraught wife and the CIA agent with a conscience. Gyllenhaal looks like JFK Jr. these days, but his Freeman is low key to the point of shell-shocked. Witherspoon is painfully sincere but only comes to life, with melodramatic fireworks, when she finally gets to confront the maddeningly calm, cool Streep.
Lady Meryl predictably steals the show with her villainy. Arkin, worried about being called a Bin Laden-lover, is compelling in his small part. Naor shows the human as well as brutal side of his role. (Hey, torturers are people, too.)
There are some great shots: When a plane flies behind the Washington Monument, you hold your breath for an instant thinking it's going to ram right into it. But, oy, the confusing time-sequence jumps and all those subplots.
By the time Isabella goes into labor, "Rendition" has been belabored beyond repair.