Friday, February 22, 2013

Snitch: An engaging surprise

Snitch (2013) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rating: PG-13, for violence and drug content
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.22.13

Despite what’s suggested by the publicity art, Snitch is not another shallow action flick, but instead a grim, thoughtful and quite tense drama about an honest man’s foolish and extremely dangerous descent into the forbidding world of narco-trafficking.

Having done his part, by exposing an exchange made by a mid-level drug dealer,
John (Dwayne Johnson, right) is surprised when this isn't enough for U.S. Attorney
Joanne Keeghan (Susan Sarandon). She's after bigger fish, even though DEA agent
Billy Cooper (Barry Pepper) insists this would put John in far too much danger.
It's also an impressive step forward for star Dwayne Johnson, mostly known until now for, well, shallow action flicks. Until this moment, his notion of “playing against type” meant silly comedies and family-friendly adventures along the lines of Tooth Fairy and Journey 2: The Mysterious Island. His work here is in another league entirely, demonstrating acting chops that few would have expected.

Don’t expect Johnson to bust heads and wreak havoc, the way he has done since TV wrestling shows granted access to the likes of The Scorpion King and the remake of Walking Tall. Writers Justin Haythe and Ric Roman Waugh go for credible drama here, and while the results certainly fall short of, say, Traffic, Waugh — also serving as director — ably delivers a believable cautionary tale along the lines of Midnight Express.

I’d like to believe that at least a few naïve and stupid teenagers might think twice about their own ill-advised activities, after watching this consequence-laden saga.

Life-changing disaster arrives in the blink of an eye, as this film begins, when 18-year-old Jason (Rafi Gavron) foolishly accepts delivery of a package, as a “favor” to a friend, knowing full well that the box is filled with illicit drugs. The thing is, Jason never quite agrees to this scheme, but he does sign for the package. And then he opens it, at which point he’s busted in a police sting.

The “friend” rolls over on him immediately, and suddenly Jason faces a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in a federal prison. His only avenue toward earlier release would involve deliberately setting up other friends and classmates, perhaps even fabricating evidence — against people he’s not even sure do drugs — and that’s an act of betrayal he’s not willing to commit.

(One cannot help hearing echoes of the post-WWII House Un-American Activities Committee trials, with their — often successful — attempts to persuade Hollywood directors, producers and writers to “rat out” fellow Communists, lest their own careers be destroyed. Breeding a culture of state-enforced snitches never produces a healthy social dynamic.)

Jason’s estranged father, John (Johnson), is beside himself. Although long divorced from Jason’s mother, Sylvie (Melina Kanakaredes), John still cares deeply for his son. He’s also a respected and well-connected businessman in his American heartland community — with Shreveport, La., standing in for an unspecified Missouri city — and thus secures a meeting with U.S. Attorney Joanne Keeghan (Susan Sarandon, sublime as always), an ambitious political animal known as the “dragon lady” by cops who work with her.

Initially viewing John as little more than a nuisance, Keeghan reflexively points to the quid-pro-quo nature of the mandatory-minimum sentencing laws. (Sarandon delivers this somewhat condescending lecture with just enough smarm to make it sound like a campaign speech ... clearly some intentional shading on her part, and on the director’s.) With Jason unwilling to “play ball,” she insists, her hands are tied.

Desperate for alternatives, John rashly offers to ferret out some drug dealers himself, a gesture immediately viewed with considerable concern by veteran DEA agent Billy Cooper (Barry Pepper, excellent in this strong supporting role). Smelling possible, publicity-laden opportunity — with no risk to her own career — Keeghan accepts this proposal.

After all, John is the perfect plant: He’s an established entrepreneur who runs a trucking firm, a business model known to be threatened in this uncertain economy. Long-haul semis are an ideal cover for drug smuggling, which would make John attractive to ... whomever he’s able to find and persuade.

Thing is, though, John isn’t merely a divorced father trying to repair a too-long-dormant relationship with his near-adult son. He’s also second-time married, with a devoted wife (Nadine Velazquez, as Annalisa) and young daughter: a guy with far too much to lose. And that’s the rub: Given this film’s ominous, gritty atmosphere, we know full well that once John embarks on this path, there’s no going back.

And, quite likely, no fairy-tale outcome.

Worse yet, John doesn’t merely endanger himself and his own two families. Wanting access to the criminal underworld, he also involves one of his employees: Daniel (Jon Bernthal), an ex-con and two-time loser who is genuinely trying to put his life back on track, at least long enough to get his own family out of a gang-infested neighborhood before his young son is seduced into joining it.

Watching poor Daniel agonize over his options, I heard Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone in my head, with his memorable line from The Godfather: Part III: “Just when I thought I was out ... they pull me back in.”

But the similarity didn’t prompt a grin, because of the fascinating duality Bernthal brings to his character. We feel for him even more than John, in part because Daniel genuinely understands the stakes, having escaped “the life” with the best of intentions. John buys Daniel’s participation with a fat wad of cash, of course failing to mention the actual circumstances of this scheme.

And Daniel can’t help himself. Although trying to better himself, he’s still a hard, dangerous man in his own right ... and that much money is irresistible to somebody trying to transcend his circumstances. His eventual surrender — his reluctant willingness to help John — is a genuinely heartbreaking moment.

Nor will it be the last.

Waugh and Haythe’s script is taut, tense and rigorously real-world. This isn’t a cartoon, where heroes dodge hails of gunfire. People who get shot, die; beatings result in hospitalization. John very nearly gets killed during his initial, half-assed attempt to infiltrate the bad part of town.

I’m also fascinated by the parallel structure that Waugh and Haythe work into their story, notably with respect to the children various men struggle to protect. John wants to free his son from prison, while also being mindful of the fresh danger being introduced to his second family. Daniel prays for the means to keep his son, more or less the same age as John’s daughter, from the influence of gangbangers.

And, on the other end of the spectrum, we note that drug cartel oligarch Juan Carlos “El Tope” Pintera (Benjamin Bratt, quietly lethal), enjoying an aristocratic life in the best part of town, dotes on his own, similarly little boy.

Michael K. Williams is appropriately chilling as Malik, a “middle management” player in the local drug trade, and John’s entry into this ruthless world. The hulking Darnell Trotter doesn’t say much, but is similarly intimidating as Malik’s bodyguard.

Waugh never strays from this story’s coldly authentic atmosphere, even during a climactic confrontation that exposes the full extent of his hero’s vulnerability. Johnson, in turn, brings considerable heft to his ordinary-guy character; his stand-out scene comes during a visiting-hours session with his son, when John realizes that Jason has been assaulted ... and we see, in Johnson’s eyes, the horrible implications that could be concealed within that word.

Gavron is just as good here: Jason’s terrified, shamed expression, in turn, offers proof of John’s worst fears.

This film claims, as it opens, to be “inspired by true events,” in this case a January 1999 PBS Frontline piece — also titled “Snitch” — that profiled people given the Hobson’s choice of becoming informants or going to jail. The news story, no surprise, focused on how mandatory minimum sentencing and conspiracy provisions have, in many cases, rewarded the guiltiest and punished the less guilty (or more naïve).

Pretentions toward real-world authenticity often are greeted by skeptical smirks these days, but Waugh and Haythe deserve considerable credit for effectively straddling the line. Clearly, these are fictitious characters navigating a writer’s concept of actual fact, but at the same time we recognize the genuine stakes involved, and understand the object lessons at play.

Bottom line: We are well advised to avoid getting caught in this particular set of circumstances.

Not a bad take-home, for a modest little B-drama.

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