The Covenant

[Since this is still in theaters, advance warning that there is a spoiler in this piece.]

Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant (or Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant; 2023; in theaters) ends with a title card that defines “covenant” as “bond, pledge, commitment.” No doubt those are aspects of what that word connotes to modern ears. But to Biblically formed ears, there is certainly more to the definition, and much of that comes through in the film. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Master Sergeant John Kinley, who is assigned a new interpreter after his earlier one was killed by an IED. Kinley’s squad is tasked with searching out Taliban explosives and destroying them. The new interpreter, Ahmed (Dar Salim), has multiple motives for working with the U.S. military, chief among them getting visas for himself and his family to get out of Afghanistan. The Taliban killed his son, so he is happy to help out anyone who is working against the Taliban.

This is not a typical Guy Ritchie movie, for which Snatch and Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels set the tone. There is no running clever and wry dialog. The editing is not quick cuts and off-angles. This is not a crime movie with a fractured and perspectival narrative. The story is essentially straight-forward, in two parts: Ahmed saves John’s life; John is burdened by the obligation to save Ahmed’s life in return. Hence the covenant, even if unspoken between them. We often see John and Ahmed paralleled in shots, most obviously in the final scene. They are the two sides of the covenant, and their almost inexplicable commitment to the life of the other is indicative of the most serious of Biblical covenants: if I do not keep up my end, I will die. And they both nearly do while attempting to save the other’s life.

As a film, I really wanted to love it. But it has a little trouble rising above war movie tropes. It is given a little more power by the actual photographs of soldiers with their local translators, and the true information that interpreters put their lives and families in danger, understandably, of retaliation by the Taliban for helping the U.S. military. (Ahmed at one point tells John that he is there to translate, rather than simply interpret, which is one of the best lines in the film. Translation is simply putting some words in place of other words. Interpretation involves knowing what to do with the words, as well as being able to understand how those words are being said.)

The most moving scene comes at the end, as John, Ahmed and his family, and their driver are pinned down on a dam by Taliban fighters, who far outnumber them. They are all out of ammunition, they can’t reach their extraction team by radio, and all they can do is sit there and wait for the end to come. Here is where Ritchie’s decisions about when to slow down the frames and silence the roar of gunfire shine. We see a moment where only a look passes between John and Ahmed, but we understand it completely: John has done everything humanly possible to get Ahmed and his family out of Afghanistan, but now it seems that all that was not enough. John is incapable of keeping his end of the “covenant,” and now they’re all going to die.

I thought of this scene when someone in a Bible study mentioned how the world around us seems bleak. What we see doesn’t look like there is a God; even if there is, it doesn’t look like He cares much about us, or about what’s happening in the world. This is the theology of the cross in action. John has carried out his duty. He has gotten Ahmed and his family to the extraction point. The visas have been issued. But it’s not enough.

Now, of course, this being a movie, at that moment the full lethal force of an “Angel of Death” (AC-130) airship is unleashed and then there are no more Taliban. But that moment just before, where John and Ahmed look at each other, holding empty pistols, elevates the whole movie just a bit. All the gunfights are realistic and tense (clearly the $55,000,000 that the film cost was not wasted). But much of this can be seen in other modern war movies. We also get the ambiguity of what the U.S. is doing there at all (especially since the Taliban has entirely taken over Afghanistan since the U.S. left.). We get a lot of the differences between various groups in Afghanistan, both pro- and anti-Taliban. Sometimes some of the dialog fell flat for me, or else the delivery was slightly less than believable. I don’t know if we get a good feel for why Ahmed does what he does for John, though we get more explanation for John’s actions.

Overall, this is a solid film, emphasizing a real issue with American engagement in Afghanistan (and probably elsewhere). Ultimately, though, it seems like the limits of the genre keep it from being as profound as it wants to be.