Rating: ★★★½☆ 

Mark this down in the column of films that I thought were going to be one sort of movie but turned out to be something else entirely (see also Green Zone). It has been a couple of years since Traitor was released, though I’m reasonably certain this was marketed as a sort of Boune-like globetrotting action film. But you be the judge.

In fact, I even recall seeing Don Cheadle on some talk show–probably “The Daily Show”, since that’s the only talk show I ever watch–discussing how they’d looked to the Bourne films in order to emulate that style of efficient, close quarters fighting (I don’t think I’m making this up…but I could be).

Anyway, I mention it merely because it wouldn’t necessarily be a lie to say that there’s only a single action scene in Traitor, and it happens within the first half hour or so of the film. That isn’t a criticism, but it was surprising.

While Traitor isn’t a perfectly paced film–it seems to stretch out around the middle somewhere, and I was actually shocked to learn that it was less than two hours long–it does get high marks for not being an easy film to digest. This is a thinking man’s movie, no doubt.

A shallow interpretation might understandably peg this as an anti-American story, and in fact, I’ve seen criticisms to that effect on the IMDb. An alternately shallow interpretation might peg this as an anti-Islam story, which just goes to show you that a common trait of human nature is a psychological need to reject ambiguity.

Traitor is neither of these things of which it has been accused, really–it defies these sorts of facile reductions, and that isn’t a simple task to accomplish. So I found the film an impressively well-measured thriller, though, if I’m being honest, not one that had me at the edge of my seat.

It’s a credit to Don Cheadle’s subtle, almost underplayed acting style, that it grants him a certain amount of malleability as an actor. This might be one of his better performances in recent history, to be sure. He inhabits the protagonist, Samir Horn, and embodies particularly well the gray area, especially early in the film where we’re not certain where his allegiances will ultimately lie. Samir’s conflicted nature feels genuine, and through his eyes, we’re disturbed by the eerie parallels he sees between Islamic terrorists and an intelligence agency handler played by Jeff Daniels.

It’s similarly a credit to his supporting actors–both Guy Pearce as the son-of-a-preacher FBI agent and the especially good Saïd Taghmaoui (whom I’d only seen before as the sex trafficker in Spartan) as the terrorist who befriends Cheadle’s character–that they play their roles earnestly enough to sell their characters’ convictions without ever overplaying the parts.

Some of the credit in that regard must be given to the script, which eschews character stereotypes and imagines the triumvirate of major players as three-dimensional human beings trying to do the right thing. Ancillary characters are similarly interesting, though not always well intentioned, even in their own minds. We’re presented with a spectrum of personalities, and that’s one of the film’s many narrative strengths.

Traitor is unsettling, and while I suppose I’ll never quite be able to see terrorists as anything other than insane murderers, this film did make me think a bit harder about why terrorism exists. But this isn’t something that I think most Americans would probably care to do–and believe me, I understand why. In the end, it doesn’t change anything.