Infidel: Action and Reaction, by Tyler Smith
Conservative Christians have long been described as reactionary. It’s a label that I’ve always had a problem with. Increasingly so, in fact, as extreme knee-jerk responses to even the slightest perceived offense is quickly becoming the only thing that has bi-partisan support these days. My own misgivings aside, when it comes to right-leaning or faith-based cinema, the term certainly applies. Most movies made by either conservatives or Christians tend to be produced in defiant response to Hollywood’s brazen left-leaning perspective, and perhaps understandably so. For all its concern about accurate representation, if there’s one group that Hollywood seems perfectly comfortable generalizing about, it’s conservatives. One of the downsides of this is in the conservative response, which can involve making movies that are so tonally apoplectic (as if to say, “Look! We can generalize too!”), that the story, characters, and general style suffers. The latest example of this is Cyrus Nowrasteh’s Infidel, which wastes a compelling story by focusing much more on its ideological agenda.
We begin with Doug Rawlins (Jim Caviezel), a well-meaning Christian writer whose attempts to find common ground with the Muslim community brings him to Cairo, where he proceeds to speak openly about his belief in Jesus. This doesn’t sit well with the locals, and he is quickly abducted and imprisoned in Iran. His primary captor, Ramzi (Hal Ozsan), is under the impression that Doug secretly works for the CIA and pushes him to confess his true intentions in the region. Meanwhile, Doug’s wife, Liz (Claudia Karvan) is told by the United States government that getting Doug back is not a priority, prompting her to travel to Iran, where she quickly falls in with a group of Iranian Christians forced to worship in secret, lest they be arrested by the Islamic government.
All of this could have made for a compelling film, were the director to pick a tone and commit to it. Doug’s ordeal is almost Kafka-esque, which could allow for a genuine examination of the flawed legal system in a place like Iran. Or perhaps the film could follow Liz as she desperately navigates governmental red tape to find out if her husband is even still alive. Or maybe the film could settle in on a series of conversations between Doug and Ramzi, with their differing worldviews coming to the forefront.
Any of these narrative avenues could have improved Infidel. Instead, though, the film is so scattershot that it never quite comes together. The director is trying to do too much, likely due to his desire to create a film that runs counter to Hollywood’s narrative, which stresses the oppressive history of Christianity and the United States’ misguided intervention in the Middle East. The result is a film that attempts to cater to a more right-leaning audience while also affirming Christian values and indicting the Islamic governments of the Middle East. That’s a lot of weight for one film to carry, and the story buckles under the strain.
The actors do what they can to create consistency from one tonal beat to the next, with mixed results. Faring the best is Hal Ozsan, whose antagonist is often despicable but intriguing. Ozsan is able to convey menace and humanity simultaneously, which one wouldn’t expect in a film like this. The character’s anger is palpable, as he talks about the prejudice he encountered in his younger years. His scenes crackle with energy, as we’re never quite sure what he’s going to do or say next. It’s a truly wonderful performance.
Claudia Karvan also contributes a lot in her portrayal of Liz, a strong, intelligent, and capable woman who quickly realizes that she is out of her depth. Her stability, it seems, was always rooted in her understanding of the rules. But now that she has encountered a completely foreign situation, she is forced to trust other people in order to make any progress. Karvan plays Liz as a woman who pushes herself to keep going, but we see her fragility just underneath the surface.
Oddly enough, it’s Jim Caviezel who is the weak link here. Having played ethereal characters in The Passion of the Christ and The Thin Red Line, Caviezel seems a little lost at having to portray a real, down-to-earth person. Instead, he seems to be playing the end of his character’s arc throughout the whole film, layering on an intensity in even the most casual of situations. Eventually, the story catches up to Caviezel’s performance and his extreme melancholy becomes appropriate. But until Doug’s abduction, Caviezel seems totally lost.
But perhaps Caviezel’s performance would be more modulated if the film itself weren’t so muddled. While Cyrus Nowrasteh clearly feels passionate about his story, it’s hard to know exactly what he is trying to accomplish. While there does seem to be an effort to juxtapose Christian belief with that of Islam, the film becomes too enamored with its thriller elements to ever fully embrace the forgiving nature of Doug’s faith. In fact, there comes a moment at the end of the film when Doug has the opportunity to sacrifice himself to save others, thus demonstrating a desire to be like Christ. Instead, however, the film pivots to what could be seen as a more satisfying ending, with the villains lying dead at our heroes’ feet.
This is what I mean when I talk about the conflicting nature of the movie. It seems to want to champion Christian values while still being a Tom Clancy-esque espionage thriller. With those two tones clashing, we are left with the only consistent thematic element, which is a condemnation of Islamic attitudes. And while the draconian laws in places like Iran are certainly deserving of worldwide scorn, it takes more discipline than this film displays to fully explore such things. That type of dissection requires a scalpel, but Infidel comes armed only with a sledgehammer.
And so we return to this idea of being reactionary. This is a movie clearly made in direct reaction to the political perspectives of Hollywood. While that doesn’t necessarily guarantee that the film will be sub-par, it can lend itself to broad, generalized storytelling if the director isn’t careful. Unfortunately, like so many similar films before it, Infidel seems less focused on its actual thematic goals than what it’s actively trying not to be. It is defined not by what it believes, but what it disagrees with. If that’s not reactionary, I don’t know what is.