Can a thriller really be a thriller without thrills? Better yet, can an international spy story really succeed by purposefully getting us to sympathize with the enemy? That's the double edged sword being wielded by Jeffrey Nachmanoff with his new film Traitor. Even the title offers yet another bit of bifurcation -- on the one hand we have a deeply religious man (Don Cheadle
) working with terrorists to blow up Americans. On the other, we see how he uses his faith as a means of undermining the group's most violent objectives. Of course, this doesn't make the tale interesting or exciting. Sometimes, just being different doesn't save you from being dull.
Samir Horn (Cheadle) was 12 when his cleric father was killed by a car bomb. After years struggling with Islam, he becomes an explosives expert, working within a radical faction. When FBI agents Roy Clayton (Guy Pearce
) and Max Archer (Neal McDonough
) storm their headquarters in Yemen, Samir and his cohorts are jailed. Soon, he is befriended by Omar (Said Taghmaoui
) who recruits him to join his latest mission. Under the guidance of leaders Fareed (Aly Khan
) and Nathir (Raad Rawi), Samir will construct 50 bombs, each one destined for a trip on a U.S. cross-country bus come Thanksgiving. As a man of conscience (and secrets), involvement in such a plot will test every fiber of his being -- and his loyalties. Article continues below
As much as it wants to position itself as the "thinking man's action film," Traitor actually betrays all signs of cleverness. In fact, it frequently over-rationalizes its ideas, leaving the audience limp from lack of excitement. We know something is up with Cheadle's Samir the moment we see him, and every action he then takes seems calculated and controlled by influences outside our narrative purview. Indeed, as it passes along perfunctorily, peeling away the obvious layers from its proposed puzzle box plot, we keep waiting for the moment when the storyline's other shoe drops. Sadly, when it does, we've already figured out the twist.
That's because Traitor spends so much time apologizing for Islam, dragging out ancillary characters who rightly champion the religion's peaceful and positive messages. On the flip side, this means there's less room for suspense or entertainment. There is nothing wrong with apologizing for people who view all Westerners as devil targets -- especially when you place their political agenda square into every conversation. But when the entire movie revolves around rooting for (or against) the success of a massive suicide bombing campaign, you're asking a lot from the popcorn and nacho crowd.
Cheadle is no help here, his dour persona purposefully geared to make his accomplice more acceptable. While many of his gestures seem blatant (he gives a hungry prisoner his food), the actor does try to complicate his character. But again, he does so to the detriment of the intrigue. Since Samir is such an honorable and decent man, we can't imagine him committing mass murder. Even as he appears to be preparing for the act, we inherently suspect another course of action.
As a director, Nachmanoff
is not good at such misdirection. He wears his foreshadowing right out on his cinematic sleeve. Granted, we don't expect much from the man who co-scripted Roland Emmerich's dopey The Day After Tomorrow, but in a current clime of "us vs. them," Nachmanoff's cautious approach only muddies the clash. It's hard to be pushed to the edge of your seat when the moralizing and mean spirited good guys (Pearce and McDonough are appropriately angry Americans) keep pushing you back.
Most intelligent people understand that there is a clear contradiction between dogma and the interpreted right to destroy. By taking both sides seriously, Traitor might be fair, but it's far from involving.