Snitch is one of those films that you go in expecting one thing and get those judgments and preconceived notions blown to bits by a sharp screenplay, fantastic acting, and confident direction. A fascinating character study wrapped in the thin shroud of an action thriller, Snitch, starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is a powerful statement film about drug trafficking, masculinity, and ultimately how humans react when faced with extraordinary circumstances.
The movie centers around John Matthews (Dwayne Johnson) a hardworking father whose life is thrown for a loop when his son Jason is thrown in jail. Accused of being a drug dealer and unwilling to set any of his friends up, he risks being put away fro a long time. John refuses to take this lying down and makes a deal with the prosecutor to step in and help turn in drug dealers. He takes to it rather easily, despite his misgivings, but runs into a big problem when a cartel kingpin El Topo wants him to become his new money mule.
Snitch is better than it has any reason being because of the phenomenal acting, led by Dwayne Johnson’s best performance ever. Johnson has long been angling to take over as THE male action star of our time, but if this film is any indication, he could also stand to do more dramas. It’s a quietly intense performance of pressure cracking desperation, unyielding loyalty, with a splash of hubris thrown in and Johnson aces every moment. It’s a completely different take on the masculine father than I’ve seen. Dwayne Johnson has always been psychically imposing, so the belief that he could survive this crazy ordeal he’s being subjected to is inherent in many any audience member’s mind. What Johnson does in this part however is subvert our notions of his hyper-masculine physique, instead allowing for a well thought out performance. He’s never the aggressor and is often quite weak, but its thrilling to watch Johnson be put in the position of an every man.
The supporting players are good, if not equally as great, as Johnson is. Jon Bernthal (Shane from The Walking Dead!) is fantastic as Daniel, an ex-con whom Matthews turns to for help in his quest . I love how you see the cracks in his character’s psyche going from recovering family man to a much more morally murky place. He’s trying to do right, but a leopard can only hide his spots for so long and it’s tough to watch this man come so close to putting his life together and destroying it at the same time. Susan Sarandon is a hoot as the chief prosecutor running for Congress with whom Matthews initially strikes a deal to free his son. Sarandon is clearly a gifted actress and she really explores her character’s true intentions, which aren’t always in the best interest of anyone but herself. The barely contained glee she gets when she finds out Matthews could help her catch a cartel is a wonder to behold considering how dangerous the situation is. Michael K. Williams could play an intimidating drug dealer in his sleep at this point, but there’s no stopping the thrill of seeing him be bad. An almost unrecognizable Barry Pepper shows up as a DEA agent and delivers some much needed pathos from the good guy side.
The script canvases quite an array of ideas and characters, and while not everything comes together as smoothly as the writers would have liked, it’s an impressive piece of storytelling none the less. It’s an incredibly grounded screenplay, which helps make the quieter, more somber moments of barely concealed desperation really stick out. The scenes where Matthews is speaking to his son in prison are fantastically composed (the best moments of the film IMHO), and given just as much thematic weight as the final chase sequence. Given that immense focus on the characters, it’s easy to see how the screenplay manages to lose its grip on some larger social commentary with regards to the drug laws. In a sense, it’s too concerned about being an every man tale that it doesn’t take into account regional issues or any bigger picture criticism. Is there something particular about the drug trade in Missouri (where the film takes place, it was shot in Louisiana however) that made the creators set the film there? There was enough material with that question to create an entirely new film, but they could have given us a few beats here and there.
Which brings me to a bigger issues I had with the film, it’s a bit too safe. I wish the direction would have pushed a bit more to give us a better feel of the surrounding area. The action is intense sure, but it’s intense in a Hollywood way. When you have such harrowing stakes at hand, it’s necessary to muddle the waters a bit. However, it must be said that the balance the director managed to strike was great. Snitch is not the first, and certainly won’t be the last film that focuses on how drug trafficking has consumed the nation. However, this film might be one of the few that attempts at presenting the situation as plainly as possible. The movie relies on our notions that this guy can accomplish the impossible task, but never once let’s that interfere with the character actually managing to do it.