Reel Society

Reviews for the latest movies in theaters and on DVD.

Traitor

Review by Chris Keller
 

At first glance, on paper (and in the trailer), the Don Cheadle vehicle Traitor looks tremendously like a cheap, second grade version of any one of the Bourne movies. The whole “good guy turns on his bosses and goes on the run”–type of film has been done a lot in recent years: the three Bourne films, the new stream of James Bond movies, and in the upcoming Body of Lies. Some have even dubbed Traitor to be a “Wesley Snipes movie not starring Wesley Snipes”. This is why it is so surprising to walk into the theater expecting a B-movie from a B level studio (Overture), and get such a terrific and suspenseful two hour thriller.

When Don Cheadle is not playing second fiddle to George Clooney and Brad Pitt, he seems to give great performances in quality films that go almost totally unnoticed by movie-goers and award-givers alike (Reign Over Me, Talk To Me, Crash, Traffic, Boogie Nights). And Traitor looks to continue this trend – seeing Mr. Cheadle give an amazing exhibition of talent, with a great story filled to the brim with good plot twists and an astounding array of supporting characters.
 
Traitor is best consumed going in blindly – the more you know about the plot, the less you’ll relate to the characters’ confusion and chaotic, albeit still sensible, behavior. Don Cheadle plays Samir Horn, a Muslim man living in Sudan who may or may not be a terrorist. Cheadle plays the character so perfectly; it seems at times that he doesn’t even know what side he’s on. He carries the entire story quite well, based on the audience not knowing when to root for him or despise him. Guy Pearce holds his own though, playing an FBI agent hot on the trail of Samir throughout most of the movie. Momentarily, it looks to be the average cop role on the hunt, but Pearce infuses his character with a humanity and almost understanding of the terrorists on an alarming level.
 

The real strength of the movie seems to be the script, though – it delves much, much deeper into the mind of these Muslim extremists than any other “terrorism” movie has before, and also manages to keep your attention throughout. Other movies may have attempted to sympathize with this demographic (like Rendition or Lions for Lambs) but they just couldn’t do it in a way that mesmerizes as well as informs. Traitor doesn’t rely much on gunplay or chases through exotic locations to ratchet the suspense up; it manages to do that merely by having fully fleshed-out characters instead of stereotypes. However, one gunshot almost turns the entire movie on its head; the whole movie definitely gets a lot more interesting at that point, a point that has the FBI and the terrorist sect giving almost the exact same reasons for what they do, trying to explain just how similar they really are. It’s a tactic also used last year in The Kingdom, but here it doesn’t come off as heavy-handed and blunt – it’s actually eye-opening and thought-provoking.

One thing that irked me throughout was the way these Muslim extremists just accepted Samir so quickly into their midst, seeing as how he looks and sounds nothing like them. When they speak English, it’s heavily accented and kind of broken; Samir though sounds like he just stepped off a plane from New York. It’s explained to the audience with a couple lines of dialogue (“He’s with me”). But this is just nit-picking, since Traitor has everything you can want in a this kind of thriller film – great characters, great performances, great story-telling, with a pinch of great action and a few really great plot twists. Go see it already.

4 / 5 stars
 
 
 

Review by Patrick Hodges

It’s very difficult to critique a film like Traitor merely as a piece of entertainment.  Given that it deals with terrorism, it’s almost impossible to talk about without letting one’s own personal political or religious views, and especially one’s prejudices, shine through.

Mention the word “terrorist”, and most Westerners will immediately picture a grimy, turban-wearing, Koran-thumping hatemonger with a scraggly beard and a bomb strapped to his chest.  Mention the word “Muslim”, and, I’m sure you’ll agree, many of those same people get exactly the same picture.  Which is, of course, completely unfounded and unfair.  And if you ask any of the 99.9% of the Islamic population that doesn’t have ties to terrorism how they feel about that, what kind of answer do you think they’d give?

You’d be hard-pressed to find two words in the English language that elicit a more powerful emotional negative response than “terrorist” or “traitor”.  Imagine, therefore, what it must be like to be a deeply religious, conscientious man who must pretend to be a terrorist, in order to complete a mission where the end result is that he would be regarded as a betrayer of his own kind.  Such is the quandary for Samir Horn, played with near letter-perfect precision by the incredibly talented Don Cheadle.

We meet Samir for the first time as a boy, learning the ways of Islam in the Sudan with his father, right before his father is tragically killed in a car bomb.  Fast-forward to the present, where Samir is imprisoned in Yemen for having ties to a terrorist group.  As it turns out, Samir is actually a top-secret double agent working for the FBI - so secret, in fact, that only his FBI contact (Jeff Daniels) knows his identity - who is infiltrating this terrorist cell in order to bring it down.  Hot on his heels is FBI agent Roy Clayton (played wonderfully by Guy Pearce, making his return to big-budget films after a long absence). 

It takes an actor of Cheadle’s caliber to truly make the audience feel his plight, living a terrible lie while being an integral part of some truly terrible things, but he pulls it off magnificently.  Despite his American accent, I never doubted his character’s, well, character for a moment; deeply devout, driven by duty and torn to emotional shreds by how far he must go.

If you go into Traitor expecting the adrenaline rush of the Bourne films or the coolness of James Bond, you will be disappointed.  And speaking of disappointed, that is how I would characterize how I felt after seeing many of the recent films centering on the Middle East or terrorism (Rendition, Lions for Lambs, Stop Loss).  Many of these films, additionally, are box-office disappointments, partly because their “message” hits a little too close to home for some people, but also because they deliver that message with ham-fisted clumsiness.

Traitor, on the other hand, delivers its message with almost subliminal subtlety, while still giving us a taut, tense, dramatic, entertaining film.  Actually, it gives us two messages:  the first is that many agents of terror simply do not fit the stereotypical Bin Laden image that many of us have; they look completely normal, like any one of our neighbors, co-workers or friends might look.  And before you think that this message is offered in order to make us even more paranoid and fearful than we already are, let me assure you that the film’s second message, which is delivered with even more clarity, is that most extremists are fueled by a sense of duty, a belief that they are on the side of right.  Even the “terrorists” in this film are portrayed as actual human beings, almost sympathetic, rather than easy-to-hate caricatures that we’ve all come to expect.  Resulting to violence is a line that only a minute fraction of Muslims cross… a fact that we would all do well to remember.

This is an exceptional piece of filmmaking.   Not easy to see, to be sure, but well-acted and well-shot, and it will have you thinking deep thoughts as you leave the theater.  Which is as it should be.

4 / 5 stars

Comments (1):

  • Ken @ 09/09/2008 ( 5:58:14 PM )
    Thought provoking and emotive in just the right proportions. If I were teaching a class about propaganda this would be the class outing (no pun intended)... followed by a pizza, beer, and a hot discussion.
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