UNITED STATES - The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a powerful but clumsy political thriller about the choices and challenges facing a conflicted young man, torn between a sense of loyalty to his Muslim heritage and a desire to live the American Dream. It's a volatile combination that - in the light of a post-9/11 world - threatens to crush ambitions and cost more than a few lives.
In director Mira Nair's retelling of the story, based on a novel of the same name by Pakistan-born author Mohsin Hamid, the weight of a cross-cultural existence is simply too heavy a burden to bear.
A young man from a good family leaves home in search of his fortune but when political extremism intervenes and his world (literally) comes crashing down, his destiny is irrevocably altered.
A mesmerising opening sequence, depicting a family celebration in Lahore in 2011 and the simultaneous kidnapping of an American academic, is given additional heft by a hauntingly melodic Pakistani song-cum-chant that helps to set the mood for the rest of the movie.
The celebration takes place in the family home of Changez Khan (Riz Ahmed), a charismatic intellectual whom the CIA suspects may be involved in the kidnapping and whose students are fully committed to his pro-Islamic doctrine. The kidnapping has set the city on edge and in an effort to help defray tensions, Changez has agreed to be interviewed by American journalist Bobby Lincoln (Liev Schreiber).
The meeting takes place in a local teahouse - a hotbed of student activism - and even as the situation escalates, with police rounding up suspects in the kidnapping, Changez maintains an attitude of Zen-like calm. He tells Bobby that he loves America and the American way of life - but circumstances have led him to take a very different path.
The story flips back and forth between the teahouse in Pakistan and America a decade earlier when Changez, newly graduated from a prestigious Ivy League school and recruited to join a Wall Street firm as a financial analyst, embarks on what he imagines to be the fast track to wealth and status.
He has a gift, says his employer Jim Cross (Kiefer Sutherland), who understands that Changez - a kid from a stable middle-class background - is driven by a desire to be the best. Changez displays an impressive knack for the job, which involves coming up with brutal cost-cutting measures at financially strapped companies. "You're a long way from Lahore, kid," says Cross.
As it turns out, Changez wasn't that far away from home after all. He has all the perks of success - including a high-paying job, the respect of his peers and an attractive (but emotionally frail) American girlfriend - but everything changes when terrorists attack the twin towers.
It starts when Changez is subjected to a humiliating strip search after returning from a business trip and leads eventually to a point where he finds himself having to choose between political systems and cultural beliefs. In effect, the choice was made for him, he says to Bobby.
There are powerful themes at play and many provocative moments in The Reluctant Fundamentalist, but while Nair and screenwriters Hamid and Ami Boghani are adept at explaining motivations and sensibilities - especially from the Pakistani perspective - they were unable to ensure a smooth, trouble-free narrative.
The portrayal of Changez's persecution by the US authorities is a touch simplistic, while his uneasy relationship with girlfriend Erica (Kate Hudson) is also painfully forced - and probably unnecessary. As a political drama and a lesson in ambiguity and the realities of the post-9/11 world however, The Reluctant Fundamentalist delivers a strong message - and makes for compelling viewing.
Get The Business Times for more stories.