Tag Archives: C+

SNITCH

Producer: 
Director: 
Writer: 
Stars: 
Studio: 

C+

As Eugene Jarecki’s recent documentary “The House I Live In” demonstrated, US drug laws—and their enforcement—are in many respects a scandal, and “Snitch” deserves credit for dramatizing that unhappy fact. It’s a pity that writer-director Ric Roman Waugh and co-writer Justin Haythe have chosen to send their message in a movie that’s a weird cross between Liam Neeson’s “Taken” pictures and one of those Lifetime cable movies in which a mother will do anything to save her child from being wrongfully convicted for some heinous crime.

Dwayne Johnson stars as John Matthews, the owner of a construction firm whose estranged teen son Jason (bland Rafi Gavron) gets arrested for dealing in Ecstasy. When he learns that the boy is facing a long prison term under mandatory federal sentencing guidelines, John decides to infiltrate the local drug culture to get the goods on a kingpin and give the information to Joanne Keeghan (Susan Sarandon, doing her icily businesslike routine), the hard-nosed prosecutor who promises to reduce the boy’s jail time in in return.

The undercover scenario is old hat, of course—probably the best modern variant was the CBS series “Wiseguy,” which handled it really well. So’s the motivation—saving your child from jail. Still, “Snitch” would work better if it didn’t stack the deck in such crude, obvious ways. Jason isn’t really a drug pusher at all—he’s just a naïve kid set up by his best friend, who’d been caught by the feds and promised a sweet deal if he delivered somebody—anybody—else for them to arrest. And when Matthews delivers a real dealer named Malik (Michael K. Williams) to her on a silver platter, Keeghan—who’s also running for Congress, of course—reneges, demanding that he move up the chain to cartel leader Juan Carlos “El Topo” Pintera (Benjamin Bratt) instead. It’s a good thing that John’s company has a fleet of semis, which can be used to transport mountains of cash across the border to Mexico. Cue the big freeway chase in which his truck is pursued by a bevy of bad guys in their cars, guns blazing, while Keeghan’s right-hand man, Cooper (Barry Pepper, sporting an unsightly goatee and looking more like Robert Patrick than ever) speeds to pick up El Topo. (The actual arrest, in which Cooper coincidentally spies his quarry in an SUV headed in the other direction, is so absurd that it elicits audience snickers.)

One can imagine a story of this kind being handled in a more subtle, and therefore more interesting way. Jason could have actually been involved in the drug trade, which would have made for some real moral complexity, largely absent when he’s just a dumb innocent. (The effort to make him seem “noble” for refusing to name somebody else to get a reduced sentence himself is strained.) And John could really have been a regular guy, something that hardly comes across by casting ex-wrestler Dwayne Johnson in the role. He actually gives his best performance to date, but certainly isn’t anyone’s idea of a meek little milquetoast called to action duty. Instead he’s way more muscle-bound than the villains he’s up against—he literally looks as though he could snap them like twigs—and it’s no surprise when he turns into a fairly typical action hero. Keeghan could have been portrayed as something other than what another character calls a “dragon lady,” too.

Still, “Snitch” has some strengths. Working with production designer Vincent Reynaud, art director Joe Lemmon and cinematographer Dana Gonzalez, Waugh manages to capture the gritty underbelly of the unnamed Missouri city in which it’s set quite satisfactorily. He’s helped by the effective performances of Williams as the reclusive Malik and Jon Bernthal as the ex-con Matthews persuades to act as his introduction to the drug trade (the character might be stock, but Bernthal invests it with authenticity). Bratt cuts a cool, unflappable figure as the cartel honcho, and Pepper an appropriately tough one. But Merlina Kanakaredes, as Jason’s mother, and Nadine Velasquez, as John’s second wife, are pretty much wasted. This is a macho enterprise—even Sarandon swaggers.

“Snitch” earns points for dealing with a serious social issue, and for offering Johnson the chance to display his improving skill as an actor. But by trying to pass muster as a conventional action movie while delivering its message, it comes up a mite short.

PROMISED LAND

Producer: 
Director: 
Writer: 
Stars: 
Studio: 

C+

The potential environmental risks of fracking, the effective but controversial method of extracting natural gas by pumping water and chemicals into deep beds of shale, were explored in Josh Fox’s hard-hitting but one-sided 2010 documentary “GasLand.” Now “Promised Land” deal with them in a dramatized form that will certainly reach a wider audience but is just as much an assault on corporate greed and insensitivity. Directed in a leisurely, entirely conventional fashion by Gus Van Sant from a script by Matt Damon and John Krasinski, who also star, it’s an old-fashioned, painfully earnest film that conjures up a Capra-like populist fable of the little people taking on the powerful, only to switch suddenly into cynical mode in the last act. It’s unlikely to enjoy the same measure of appeal that Damon’s first outing with Van Sant (and Ben Affleck), “Good Will Hunting,” did, though like it, the picture is essentially a big-screen version of what might have been a Hallmark Hall of Fame special.

The linchpin of the story is Damon’s Steve Butler, a roving salesman for Global Energy, which sends him into the field to purchase drilling leases from the locals. He’s in line for a promotion to the executive suite, but after an interview is sent to a small Pennsylvania farming town along with his usual partner, Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand), to convince the farmers in the area to sign up. It’s fertile territory, not only because the geological evidence is favorable but because at a time of economic recession, the landowners are desperate for some financial hope.

Steve is an unusual company man—a small-town Iowa boy who saw his own community die when the Caterpillar plant closed and can relate to hard-pressed locals in a way that makes them receptive to his pitch. And at heart he’s an idealistic fellow, honestly believing that his company’s offer can save their depressed area. But despite the support of the city fathers, who see the project as a boon to the treasury (and their own pockets), he’s confronted by formidable opposition led by a high-school science teacher (Hal Holbrook), who uses a town-hall meeting to arrange a vote on whether or not to go ahead with it. The opposition is bolstered by the arrival of a glad-handing, charismatic environmental activist named Dustin Noble (Krasinski), who brings with him tales of his own town’s destruction at Global’s hands as a result of the dire environmental effects that fracking had there.

Steve’s confidence is shaken by Noble’s success in converting many of the locals to his cause, but also by his own growing misgivings about what he’s doing—and by the fact that schoolteacher Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt), in whom he has an incipient dramatic interest, gravitates toward Dustin as well. That’s why he’s so overjoyed when the company sends him evidence that Noble is a fraud, proof that he can use to turn the tide in his favor and rid himself of a rival in one fell swoop.

The strength of “Promised Land” lies primarily in two elements. One is the portrait it draws of small-town America in the throes of economic distress, which is only occasionally heavy-handed. (That town meeting, held in the high school gym, that has to be cut short when the coach intervenes because his team has to practice, is a typically nice touch.) It’s aided by the locations, Daniel B. Clancy’s spot-on production design, Greg Weimerskirch’s art direction, Rebecca Brown’s set decoration, Juliet Poicsa’s costumes and, especially Linus Sandgren’s evocative cinematography.

The other is the performance of Damon, who persuasively depicts a man torn between his principles and his suspicions that he’s been abusing them for his own profit. (It doesn’t seem plausible, however, that such a naïve fellow—and one so successful in the field—would be seriously considered as executive material in a company that appears to be without scruple.) McDormand is also fine as a no-nonsense career woman who seems more concerned with her baseball-playing son back home than her current assignment and is much less capable than her partner of blending into an unfamiliar environment. (A subplot involving her relationship with a local convenience-store owner played by Titus Welliver is a stretch, though.) And Krasinski obviously has a good time playing a jovial, yet calculating type.

Some of the supporting characters, unfortunately, are less well drawn. DeWitt is wasted in a trite role, and though Holbrook brings his accustomed authority to Frank Yates, the science teacher, the script rather stacks the deck by giving him such a distinguished past in terms of degrees and university teaching posts (as well as a hobby of raising miniature horses). On the other hand, Scoot McNairy, Terry Kinney, Tim Guinee and Lucas Black add nice touches of local color in their brief scenes.

The biggest miscalculation in the film, though, is the turn it suddenly takes toward the close. The revelation certainly acts as a prod to Steve’s final declaration of principle—he becomes the Mr. Smith of the Pennsylvania farm country—but also transforms the picture into a message about corporate manipulation that’s much less clever than it’s meant to be. And ironically it opens the film—which, as oil company critics have already pointed out, was partially funded by interests from Abu Dhabi that might be interested in restricting US drilling for natural gas—to charges that in this instance art imitates life, and vice versa. That disconcerting feeling adds to the general impression that the promise of this “Land” isn’t entirely fulfilled.