The Covenant (2023) Movie Review – Guy Ritchie’s anti-war film epitomizes the fungibility of human bonds

Guy Ritchie’s anti-war film epitomizes the fungibility of human bonds

It is true that almost all war films ever made are anti-war at their core. Irrespective of the story, glorification, and patriotic elements, the underlying tenet of most comes from a place of intense hatred for violence. While the commentary might not always be of a critical nature, war and suffering can never be separated.

Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant, now available to stream on Prime Video, is not based on true story but several true stories of Afghan interpreters whose existence is threatened today in the Taliban-ruled country. Jake Gyllenhaal and Dar Salim star in pivotal roles, playing the American and Afghan, respectively, whose fates were forever intertwined due to the ideals of human friendship.

This might be someone’s real story and that is tragic indeed. The most striking notion of The Covenant is the visual absence of suffering but is instead replaced by haunting shadowy feeling hanging large. There is, in fact, a huge overhang throughout the film as Sergeant John Kinley (Gyllenhaal) looks to “repay his debts” to Ahmed (Salim) for saving his life.

Kinley is consumed by the disproportionate nature of this transaction not because he wants to get even but because of the bond he forged with Ahmed. It is almost as if the real fight began after Kinley was saved. Navigating his way through the shitstorm of red tape bureaucracy was harder.

The thumb rule today is basing all movies around war on true stories. Devotion, 1917, and All Quiet on the Western front are some examples from recent memory. One can gauge the allure of turning the clock back and watching in anticipation to see how it all happened. The pull is undeniable and that is why so many movies like those have been successful. But creatively, they are limiting.

Fictionalizing the plot and characters while keeping the gritty realism of the setting allows Ritchie a greater degree of creative freedom and control in The Covenant. It helps him make the film more tense and streamlined, playing to Ritchie’s own strengths of narrative and storytelling.

It also allows him to give a political tinge to the story and make his messaging more impactful. On occasions like these, being irreverent helps a filmmaker, especially to ground their films in their own ilk and taste. The attention is less on the characters or the timeline of events and more on the actual story.

One thing that is quite certain watching The Covenant is the stark difference in filmmaking temperaments. Ritchie upholds traditional values and a normative understanding of filmmaking in The Covenant. At almost 2 hours long, it is not lean by modern standards.

Based on how we consume content today, the medium has pivoted. More creative voices are coming out today that believe in modernised quirky offbeat cinema. It stands in total opposition to the early 2010’s to which Ritchie belongs. The progression of the plot is more sedate, it has clearer boundaries – a start and an ending – and most importantly, Ritchie doesn’t try to overplay his hand.

The Covenant does not take its present shape without moral convulsions. There are constantly ethical and moral challenges for our characters and even those who only appear as non-essential personnel. It adds urgency to what comes next and helps the film to be more appealing.

Ritchie’s core message is the friendship of humanity. Finding the human bond beneath costumes of countries, religions, and ideologies is the core tenet of The Covenant. The anti-war commentary isn’t as impactful or predominant visually. But the narrative recognition is present. Gyllenhaal and Salim match each other’s acting prowess, at the same time creating different portrayals.

The two characters and their unsaid code of conduct are uniquely leveraged by Ritchie in the context of The Covenant. Gyllenhaal’s shining moment is when Kinley has returned from Afghanistan and slips into a monologue, sitting up on the bed as Caroline lies next to him.

The actor adds immense seriousness and depth to Kinley. He even looks the part with his physicality and rugged appearance. Salim has a recognizable next-door-neighbour kind of face but it is remarkable he hasn’t starred in more films. He looks seamless in how he plays Ahmed, bringing his own personal background in establishing his credentials.

Given the messaging of The Covenant, there is a sense that Ritchie makes critical remarks on the administration for pulling out US troops from Afghanistan back in 2021.

That might be ambiguous but as a viewer, it is undeniable that Ritchie asserts the presence of the forces prevented the Taliban from wreaking havoc and taking over. The Covenant has an old soul, in terms of filmmaking, and offers an impressively carved-out take on the issue of abandonment by the US forces in Afghanistan. It is not fast, explosive, and gratifying cinema but certainly taut and sufficiently palpable.

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  • Verdict - 7/10

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