The Mauritanian Movie Review
A few years too late to tell us anything we don’t already know, but still powerful enough to punch you in the gut a few times, The Mauritanian is a decent legal thriller about an inmate who spent years in Guantanamo Bay without ever being charged with a crime. Starring Jodie Foster, Shailene Woodley, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Tahar Rahim, The Mauritanian is worth checking out even if it falls a few steps short of greatness.
Despite being full of recognizable, A-list talent, Tahar Rahim is the star of the show, delivering a searing, emotional, and at times humorous performance as Mohamedou Ould Slahi, who was accused, but never charged, as one of the instigators of 9/11. The rest of the cast is good as well, but none of them are given a lot to do outside of “concerned lawyer face.”
The acting elevates the material, which, nearly 20 years and many theatrical depictions later, comes off as fairly routine. But even then, it’s not really the material that is the problem as much as it is the film’s structure, which relies on a significant number of flashbacks to form a fully realized story.
And pad its running time.
Had The Mauritanian been organized in a more chronological format, director Kevin Macdonald could have had a much more convincingly powerful narrative on his hands. Doing so would have come at the expense of introducing the big-name stars involved, but how much bolder would have this film been? Macdonald could have lingered for some time on this man who falls deeper and deeper into the dark recesses of the U.S. military operation, depicting the severity of his punishment and his ability to persevere nonetheless. Instead, Macdonald piecemeals out Mohamaedou’s backstory to punctuate stages in the legal investigation, largely abandoning the opportunity to have his time in a U.S. military prison resonate the way it should. The scenes of torture and sexual abuse are still disturbing, but again, many other films, from Zero Dark Thirty to last year’s The Report, have already touched on similar sequences. Keeping the focus for a significant time on Mohamedou, and early on, may have allowed The Mauritanian to stand out.
What’s more frustrating about the flashbacks is that Macdonald also uses them to explore other characters as well, a tactic that becomes increasingly shoddy and desperate as time passes.
While a different format would have benefited the movie greatly, The Mauritanian still tells a stunning, real-life story of torture and illegal imprisonment that should not be forgotten anytime soon. And its final scene, and the cut to the post-mortem textual update of what happened after the movie’s story ended, stabs at your heart. Coupled with strong performances, especially by Rahim, The Mauritarian is a worth your time, even if it falls short of its potential.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.