If you’ve never taken a few moments to contemplate the motives of suicide bombers, hijackers and other pawns of terrorism, you’re missing out on one of our age’s most fascinating parlor games. I’ve played it while looking across the airplane aisle at the quiet guy wearing a trenchcoat in the window seat, or after glancing at the disturbingly undisturbing file photos of the perpetrators in a massacre’s aftermath. What cocktail of religious mania, political nihilism, xenophobia, clinical depression and Hinckleyesque sexual excitement prompts people to strap explosives to their bodies or fly planes into buildings, heedlessly killing as many civilians as possible? Is he doing it in retaliation for decades of abuses? Is she showing up an ex-boyfriend? Does he really think he’s changing the world? Is it all about faith in a nebulous, heavenly reward?
Paradise Now, an award-winning new film from writer-director Hany Abu-Assad, is interesting for as long as it’s willing to play the game with us. It’s about a few critical days in the lives of Said (Kasi Nashef) and Khaled (Ali Suliman), two Palestinian junkyard mechanics in Nablus, a dangerous city on the West Bank. They don’t do much, apart from working and sucking on a hookah while relaxing in the hills around town. They seem unlikely candidates for what they’re about to be asked to do, and the film revels in this displacement as its central theme. For long stretches, in fact, the movie is another black comedy about the absurdities of war and violence, with gags about Jews putting poison in the water supply to weaken Palestinian sperm, or the difficulties of removing suicide-bomb gear (it isn’t designed to come off).
Paradise Now’s problem isn’t this absurdist tone, but its refusal to be patient and serious when it would be most helpful to us. The film’s deconstruction breaks down at the crux of the entire operation: When the guys’ friend, Jamal (Amer Hlehel), informs them that they’ve been selected by an unnamed terrorist group to kill a bunch of Israeli soldiers. What seems to a Western mind to be a vast leap'from political agnostic to suicidal activist'is shown to be a logical, even desirable move that can be accomplished in 48 hours. We know our guys’ fathers were terrorized by the Israeli army, and we’re told such calls to action are considered a privilege and a sacred rite, but Abu-Assad struggles to make this inevitability entirely convincing. We’re told why suicide is painless, but we don’t have enough time to feel it.
Instead, Paradise Now busies itself with the minutiae of the attack; the guys shave their hair before putting on slick black suits. In its second hour, complications turn the film into a bit of a thriller, with unlikely twists that make up a second attempt to steer what should be a measured psychological drama into other, more Hollywood-ed territory. As with the comedy, these elements are fairly skillfully rendered, but nothing we haven’t seen before. The situation that makes the film so interesting in the first place is accepted and bypassed, all so Abu-Assad can make a potboiler.
Paradise Now is accomplished technical filmmaking, but it sometimes seems to be about everything except what it should examine. Abu-Assad relies heavily on its brazenness and shocking subject matter to camouflage a collection of short, simple ideas about the psychology of the madness he’s filming. The movie’s high concept is a surefire idea for a provocative, award-winning movie, while the comedy and the threats of violence provoke its audience even further. But they turn out to be empty threats of a deep, comprehensive theory. Paradise Now is simply a story, not a statement'and the story doesn’t contain much we haven’t contemplated before.