THE WAR WITHIN — ** 1/2 — Ayad Akhtar, Firdous Bamji, Nandana Sen; in English and Urdu, with English subtitles; rated R (torture, violence, profanity, brief nudity, brief sex, vulgarity).

It's unclear whether the makers of "The War Within" want us to sympathize with the film's main character, whether they want us to relate to him or whether we're just supposed to find his inner struggles watchable.

That moral haziness is one of the more bothersome facets of this disturbing dramatic thriller, which turns formulaic and too predictable in its final third. But the film's rather even-handed treatment of its characters and material is both surprising and risky, since the main character is Hassan (Ayad Akhtar), a Pakistani who comes to the United States as part of a terrorist plot.

Upon his arrival, he's greeted by a childhood friend, Sayeed (Firdous Bamji), who has settled in Jersey City. The clueless Sayeed graciously agrees to let his old friend stay with him and his family, until Hassan can find a job and apartment. But Hassan is actually part of a terrorist cell that is planning to set off a series of bombs on New York's tunnels and bridges, and possibly, its mass-transit systems. When several of Hassan's cohorts are nabbed, he's ordered to lie low, so he renews his friendship with Sayeed's lovely sister, Duri (Nandana Sen), who's just broken up with her boyfriend and is emotionally vulnerable.

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Among director Joseph Castelo's smarter choices is having cinematographer Lisa Rinzler shoot the film on digital video, which gives things more of a documentary feel. Also, Rinzler eschews the usual, dizzying camera tricks of most digital photographers.

Newcomer Akhtar, who co-wrote the screenplay with Castelo, has an unsettling presence. His dark eyes always suggest there's something sinister going on behind them; his most effective moments come during flashbacks to Hassan's torture and indoctrination.

"The War Within" is rated R for strong scenes of torture (seen in flashbacks), some domestic violence and acts of terror (mostly overheard), scattered use of strong sexual profanity, brief glimpses of female nudity (a strip club scene), some brief sexual contact, and some crude references and lewd dancing. Running time: 95 minutes.