[22 February 2013]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
You just grasp for whatever’s there, even if it’s right or if it’s wrong, you don’t really think too much about it. I know I didn’t think too much about it. I have a lot of second thoughts now, but I didn’t think too much about it at that time.
— James Settembrino
Malik (Michael K. Williams) sits at a wooden table in a tiny house in a scary neighborhood in Jefferson City, Missouri. Framed in shadows, dressed in black, Malik gazes balefully at Daniel (Jon Bernthal), a onetime colleague in the drug business. Back in the day, Malik smiles, “We were moving product like we was the United Nations and shit.” Before you have much time to ponder this idea—that the world’s most prolific drug traffic is conducted by states and institutions, or maybe just the individuals who work for them—Malik notes their current and much sorrier state: “Two-strikers like us,” he says, “We can’t walk the street.”
Two-strikers like them have been convicted and sentenced twice according to mandatory minimum laws. Two-strikers like them know that if they’re busted again, they will die in prison, even as they know that outside, where they are now, they are also already caught, unable to walk the streets whether they’re still dealing, like Malik, or working a regular construction job, like Daniel.
For it is Daniel’s great misfortune in Snitch that he’s employed by John (Dwayne Johnson). At first, it seems a decent gig: the boss admires his work ethic, helps him with some manual labor, and even acts like a nice guy. This changes when John’s son Jason (Rafi Gavron) is arrested for receiving a package of enough MDMA to indicate an intent to sell, this because the friend who sent the package snitched on him to avoid his own sentence. Jason is up on his first strike: he lives in the suburbs and goes to high school. He’s a “good kid,” adults around him say more than once. Not to put too fine a point on it, but he’s not anything like the two-strikers Daniel and Malik. He’s got a chance.
In the logic of Snitch, he has this chance because of his father. On seeing Jason’s black eye and fearful behavior in front of a sinister (and yes, black) fellow inmate, John is determined to get Jason out. On learning the absurdity of the snitch system (that is, convictions at any cost), dad cuts a deal with the US Attorney, Keeghan (Susan Sarandon). She’ll reduce Jason’s 10-year minimum sentence if John can help her arrest a random dealer, say, Malik. John’s route to that end is Daniel, whose job application reveals his two prior convictions.
For his part, Jason is a cocky entrepreneur with a pretty wife, a young daughter, golf dates with local officials, and strained relationships with both Jason and Jason’s mom (Melina Kanakaredes). If John can’t be aware of all the ramifications of his agreement with Keeghan, the violence he’ll encounter from cartel guys or the shifty brutality of her deal-making, that’s all to the good of the film’s action sequences. And so John compels a reluctant Daniel to help him, which leads to the meeting with Malik, which leads in turn to John and Daniel driving one of John’s giant rigs to deliver drugs, as well as engage in gunfights, highway chases, and desperate betrayals.
All of this is to say that Snitch is silly. This even as it uses commendably smudgy visuals and claims to be “inspired by true events,” or, more precisely, by a Frontline episode seen by stuntman turned director and cowriter Ric Roman Waugh. The movie strips out potential complexities in John’s trajectory in order to get to the life lessons. And so: witnessing the evils enacted by the dealers (including the monstrous cartel head El Topo, exactly the role that the excellent Benjamin Bratt has worked so hard not to have to play throughout his career) as well as Keeghan and, to a slightly lesser extent, the DEA agent Cooper (Barry Pepper), John comes to appreciate the corruption in every facet of commerce—except perhaps his own. He also comes to a change of heart about Jason, whom he first sees as a kid who’s not working hard enough and then as a person with integrity, in that Jason refuses to snitch on just anyone in order to get off, while John does just that.
It’s true that John does this in an action movie universe, and so what he does looks mighty admirable. For all the nonsensical action and bad dialogue and the Rock’s several teary scenes, this need for the righteousness of John’s mission is the most vexing aspect of Snitch. John must get Jason out of prison, and the film has to let you feel good about that, even as it includes dead and captured drug dealers, the victims of John’s snitching and entrapping. This means that it must present Malik, El Topo, and El Topo’s attack dog Benicio (JD Pardo) as villains, pretty much without complication. It’s to Williams’ enormous credit (credit that he’s pilled up over years of playing similar parts) that Malik is something of a conundrum here. The film does grant Daniel some backstory, and suggest that he wants to stay straight and had reasons for going wrong years. Such backstory, and a couple of scenes at home that show him with a young son and a recovering addict wife (arguably, another of Snitch‘s unconsidered stereotypes), make Daniel comprehensible and sympathetic.
Malik gets none of this. He’s offered up as a scary guy in a scary place, attended by a larger scarier minion (Shun Hagins), a criminal whose route to his criminality remains unspoken, assumed, and dreadfully uncomplicated. Of course, he understands far more than the film can articulate for him, and Williams’ shrewd and affecting performance invites you to rethink Malik, or maybe just your assumptions. He knows he’ll never get a deal with the feds, that he’ll never escape the vengeance of his associates, that he’ll never be able to walk the streets. He’s done because of where he came from and because of choices he’s made, certainly, but also because US culture and politics and law have deemed him done. If Snitch can’t consider that, you might.