(2013, US, d. Ric Roman Waugh)
Sometimes, even January-release action movies have a way of surprising you. Take Snitch. From every poster, teaser, spot, or interview, Snitch comes off like a poor man’s version of last year’s Contraband. The ads feature a ripped Dwayne Johnson kicking ass, explosions, one-liners, and a “father save son” plot line that’s been recycled by Hollywood studios for years.
But then you actually see the movie, and all the trouble you went through of having to convince your friends to go to it because it was the only halfway-decent flick playing in theaters (sorry, Identity Thief) goes away. To be honest, I was a huge fan of this film, mostly because it was nothing like what I expected to be, and partly because it was actually kinda good.
Snitch tells the story of John Matthews (Dwayne Johnson), a divorced construction company owner, who learns in the beginning of the film that his son, Jason (Rafi Gavron) has been arrested. A brief opening scene has already introduced us to Jason and has given the details of his arrest: Jason nervously agrees to a favor – hold some drugs for a friend for a day until that friend can pick it up. When Jason receives the package, it turns out to have a DEA tracker placed on it, and pretty soon law enforcement has surrounded his house. Though Jason has never dealt drugs, his friend – who it turns out was already arrested at the time he made the request – was the one who set him up, in order to reduce his own sentence.
Jason, however, doesn’t want to turn anyone else in for a shorter sentence. So it’s pretty much praying at this point that Jason receives the minimum sentence he can, which is 10 years. When Matthews comes into the picture, we can see the guilt he carries with him on his face. He was never there for Jason growing up and hasn’t ever been, either. Matthews decides to do something about it.
Using his own connections, Matthews tracks down US Attorney Joanne Keeghan (Susan Sarandon), a Congressional candidate running on a platform of strict anti-drug enforcement. Keeghan confides in him that, while there is nothing Jason can do now to reduce his sentence, if Matthews were to give information leading to the arrest of a higher drug dealer on the food chain, she could reduce Jason’s sentence to only a year. With the ghost backing of the DEA, Matthews begins to get into the world of drug trafficking.
By now, I’m hooked into the film. But it really wasn’t because of the content of it, but rather they way Waugh was executing it. Quiet, tense, and subtle, Snitch never allows its characters to drown underneath the heavy-handed plot or action. Rather, Waugh feels perfectly comfortable in letting performances evolve, breathe, and just marinate for 30 minutes before even introducing an element of action.
Minor spoiler: there’s one action scene in this entire film and it’s probably the most realistic vehicular derby scene I’ve witnessed in a very long time. The entire movie builds to it, and in any other movie, the scale of that kind of scene would be diminished so much, it would probably be placed in the opening 15 minutes of the movie. But in a movie like Snitch (believe me: I can’t believe I’m praising this movie, considering how bad I thought it was gonna be), it’d done right.
But it’s because Waugh pays close attention to his actors, to the tone, and to the material he clearly cares about (Waugh co-wrote the screenplay with Revolutionary Road scribe Justin Haythe), that he is able to transform this mainstream January release into an issue driven picture.
This is the first time I’ve been able to call Dwayne Johnson an actor. He was subtle, carried the emotional weight of every scene on his shoulders, and listened to the actors and dialogue around him. But it’s not just Johnson that proved to be an exception. Film newcomer Jon Bernthal (from AMC’s The Walking Dead) turns in a power-house performance as a construction worked forced back into the drug business. What begins as a minor sub-plot and screenplay convenience to get Johnson a connection into the drug world turns into a complex and emotionally developed sub-plot, and it was probably the best surprise of the entire film. Barry Pepper, Susan Sarandon, and Michael Kenneth Williams all turn in fine supporting performances as well.
But at the end of the day, Snitch goes to Waugh’s credit. It’s hard to take something even studios see as a mindless, January release and turn it into a film of interest, real-life issue, genuine emotion, tension, and complex thematic content. And that’s exactly what he does here.