Reviewed by: Brett Willis
Violent in spots and deeply disturbing throughout, this film forces our attention onto the worldwide problem of human suffering. From Ethiopia in 1984, to Cambodia in 1989, to Chechnya in 1995, each crisis that’s portrayed is different, and yet each is the same. The problem of lack of food and medicine for the poor is not caused by overpopulation, but by wars and politics interfering with effective delivery of supplies.
Newly married Sarah Jordan Hauser (Angelina Jolie), an art gallery employee, is attending a posh London dinner hosted by her father-in-law and intended as a fund-raiser for famine relief. The party is crashed by Dr. Nick Callahan (Clive Owen), who takes over the podium and demands to know why the funds to his refugee camp in Ethiopia have been cut. Nick has brought along a visual aid: a young, emaciated boy dressed in rags. After infusing a good deal of guilt into the partygoers, Nick is unceremoniously subdued and tossed out. But he’s left a lasting impression on Sarah, who decides to accompany the next shipment of supplies and see Nick’s camp personally. (I’m reminded of the words of Jesus in Mark 12:41-44, how a poor widow was defined to have given more than all the rich people, because they gave a small portion of their abundance but she gave everything that she had.)
The conditions at the camp are horrible. Three years of drought, and a civil war, have taken their toll. People who are only skin and bones. Inadequate facilities. Dead bodies, and some living bodies, with flies crawling on them and vultures just waiting for an opportunity. A warlord trying to confiscate the food shipment for his own use. Sarah takes a special interest in a baby who has limbs like matchsticks (I believe that most of the footage of this baby was CGI, but it was so well done that it was hard to be sure).
Five years later, Sarah, now a U.N. worker, plans to accompany another shipment and see Nick again, this time in Cambodia. Her marriage is over in principle; she and her husband are just staying together for the sake of their child. Just before leaving for Cambodia, she gets a strong clue that her husband is fooling around with another woman. This Hollywood plot device leaves her “free” to fool around herself, with guess who. But before she and Nick can get around to that, they and the refugees in Nick’s camp have to endure hardship at the hands of both the Cambodian government troops and the Khmer Rouge rebels. Again, the film uses a baby as a focus of the suffering. To torment Nick, the Khmer Rouge leader gives a baby a hand grenade to play with, and shoots anyone who tries to rescue the baby.
Six years later, same situation, different day. Actually, a slightly different situation. Nick has been taken captive in Chechnya, and Sarah intends to find and free him. The scenes of Chechnya in winter are shot with a blue filter, giving the opposite effect of the yellow filter used in the Ethiopia scenes. The cinematography and the musical score help to transport us emotionally to each of these trouble-bound locations.
Language is very strong. About 30 uses of f*, 20 of s*, and various other profanities, vulgarities and curses. When Nick is angry, he tends to use “f*ing” (non-literally). And he gets angry often, about the conditions he’s forced to work in.
Violence is sporadic, but intense when it occurs. Innocent people suffer just because they’re in the wrong place at the wrong time. And the gut effect of the senseless violence is greater because we remember the news stories about these wars and know that the film is portraying historical events realistically.
The affair between Sarah and Nick is extremely annoying and a major distraction from what should have been the film’s primary focus. There’s no explicit nudity or fondling in the sex scene, although in a later scene we see Nick’s hand caressing Sarah’s behind. It appears that they have sex just the one time, but they were “soulmates” before that and remain so afterward.
Another distraction is Nick’s descent into becoming a clandestine government agent rather than a pure relief worker. Early in the film, he refuses that kind of involvement. But eventually he succumbs. Why does he do it? Well, to get his relief supplies through, he often has to pay off both armies. Cash. Cigarettes. Booze. A cut of the food and medicine. Guns. Troop position maps. Is this realistic? Yes. In many parts of the world, Christian missionaries have to pay bribes just to get their household goods though Customs. While in China to adopt a child, my brother-in-law and every other couple on his bus had to pay a bribe to the bus driver so the driver could “remember” the location of the hotel where the couples were to pick up their babies. So in the midst of famine and civil war, is it any wonder that armies would use food as a weapon?
I saw this film on Saturday night, opening weekend. Although the multiplex was very crowded, only five people attended this film. I predict that it will do poorly at the box office, not because of its negative elements but because of its positive ones. People want action violence as entertainment. If a film does have a political message, it should be about something that’s long enough ago (World War II, for instance) that it doesn’t call the viewer to a present-day commitment. But the events in this film are recent, and we all know that something like them is going on in many parts of the world at this very moment. I had a Christian friend who enjoyed grossing out guests by showing films like “Rambo” and “RoboCop” in his home. But he refused to watch a video I offered him, showing a real second-trimester abortion. Why? “I don’t want to know. Because if I knew, I’d be compelled to get involved.” I believe a similar motivation will keep people away from this film.
If someone DOES want to do something to help famine victims and refugees, what CAN be done? Many conservatives are (understandably) uncomfortable with the United Nations. But there are many Christian organizations working hard in these trouble spots, including Food for the Hungry, Samaritan’s Purse and World Vision. And, there’s Doctors Without Borders. A little research and a quick background check should turn up a number of organizations that are legitimately involved and worthy of support.
Again, Jesus speaks, in Matt. 25:41-46 (my paraphrase).
“I was hungry, thirsty, a stranger (refugee?), naked, sick, in prison, and you didn’t help me.” “But, Lord, when did we fail to help you?” “Inasmuch as you failed to minister to the needs of one of the least of these, you failed to minister to me.”This passage is not intended to teach salvation by works. But neither is it intended to let us goof off, ignore the needs of others, and think everything is fine. A person who doesn’t care about anyone, but himself, needs a wake-up call. Perhaps, for some members of an adult audience, “Beyond Borders” will be just that.
Violence: Extreme | Profanity: Extreme | Sex/Nudity: ModerateYear of Release—2003