Arts & Leisure

‘Covenant’ tests bonds of war

JAKE VYLLENTHAL and Dar Salim star in “Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant,” the tale of two men in war that are willing to sacrifice for one another.

By Lindsey Bahr/AP Film Writer

There is a line in “Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant ” in which Jake Gyllenhaal’s Army Sgt. John Kinley is having a disagreement with Dar Salim’s Ahmed, the man assigned to be his interpreter in Afghanistan, who has gone beyond straight translation and into the realm of strategy. Kinley tells him that he’s there to translate. Ahmed responds that he’s an interpreter.

The line is Gyllenhaal’s favorite and a perfect encapsulation of the dynamic between the two men, who, despite themselves, forge a bond that goes beyond words and has both risking their lives to save the other in the name of a debt.

It’s also perhaps the only line in the final film that was pre-written, Richie laughed in a recent interview with The Associated Press alongside his actors. This may seem like a strange or backhanded thing for a director to say about a script, except for the fact that it was one that Ritchie co-wrote. He’d been inspired by several documentaries in which he became fascinated with the relationship between soldier and interpreter.

The film, which has garnered some of the best reviews in Ritchie’s career, opens in theaters nationwide Friday.

“I was moved by the rather complicated and paradoxical bonds that seemed to be fused by the trauma of war between the interpreters and their colleagues, so to speak, on the other side of the cultural divide and how all of that evaporated under duress,” Ritchie said. “The irony of war is the depths to which the human spirit is allowed to express itself that in any other sort of day-to-day situation is never allowed. It’s very hard to articulate the significance and that profundity of those bonds. My job was to try and capture that spirit within a film and within a very simple narrative.”

The script, though, is merely a starting prompt. On set, the ideas are fluid, the conversations run deep and, his actors say, the creativity flourishes. Just ask Gyllenhaal, who met Ritchie 15 or so years ago at a Christmas party. They had an immediate “energetic connection” but hadn’t figured out a way to work together until this project.

“The first thing he said was, ‘This is a very reluctant relationship. I don’t want any sentimentality in this movie and not between these two people. I want this to be a sort of begrudging connection.'”

Gyllenhaal loved the challenge of always being on your toes for new ideas, some that even became integral callbacks in the final film.

“Quite literally, it is a table,” Gyllenhaal said. “At that table is where those exchanges are and those ideas are shared and created. And like any good table, it’s usually met with a meal as well – mini meals, large meals – and the movie is found. It really is great fun. Especially if you love food.”

Salim, an Iraqi-born, Danish-raised actor in one of his first major Hollywood roles, was a bit intimidated by the names around him at first. But by week two he had found a groove and was even so bold as to not only challenge Ritchie to a game of chess but then win – though there is some teasing disagreement about who exactly won that first match.

“Once you’re invited into that circle, it’s a very unique experience,” Salim said. “It releases energy that’s normally not there on a set.”

Ritchie has had five films released since 2019, and, including “The Covenant,” two this year alone because of business complications when STX shifted focus away from distribution and films like “Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre” got caught in a kind of limbo. He has become an almost unwitting case study in distribution for an industry in flux and recovering from a pandemic and this $55 million war film is yet another test in some ways. But that’s not something that troubles him much.

“Sands move so quickly within the industry that you almost can’t focus on the release strategies and exactly how the movie unfurls to the public, you just got to focus on what your day job is, which is the work,” Ritchie said. “You’d like it to unfurl as elegantly as possible, but there are some things that are just beyond your control, and the business itself is in a constant state of flux, but it has been since it began.”


In Gyllenhaal’s three decades of moviemaking, he’s learned that great stories will find their way, even if it’s not in the moment, “though that’s what we seem to all be a bit obsessed with.”

“The Covenant,” Gyllenhaal said, has “A real classical sense to it. It’s a simple story, it can last for a long time.”

He even found himself “blubbering” on the first watch, which surprised him as someone who doesn’t often cry at movies and certainly not at ones he’s in, which he usually can barely watch.

“I was so moved by it because I think it moved beyond the experience we had,” Gyllenhaal said. “In the end, it is a story about humanity. It’s a story about the action of good and the action of good not always having to be sentimentalized.”

Ritchie, who had already stayed chatting with his actors well past his press availability “hard out,” went even further and, seemingly, back to those tables on the set in Spain where the movie revealed itself.

“It wishes to express something that’s beyond altruism, it wishes to express something that feels at a profound level connected, and anything that can force that connection that’s beyond the duality of good and bad. It is something that’s more sacred than good or bad,” Ritchie said.

“It is curious because the name covenant seems to, although it’s somewhat biblical in its origin, it to me does capture what the essence of the story is. It’s a covenant that’s beyond good and bad. It’s a covenant that expresses an optimism about the fundamental aspect of the human spirit.”

Gyllenhaal added: “See? Now you’ve had the experience of what it’s like sitting around a table with Mr. Ritchie on a movie.”

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