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.

8 Replies to “Traitor”

  1. It was one of these end of the summer movies that slipped under the radar. Not quite an action film, not quite an edge-of-your-seat thriller. According to IMDb, it only made about $20 million.

  2. Don Cheadle is a great actor, but for some reason… I just stopped caring about him. I’m not sure why and I’m not sure when. Hold on… I’m going to check the imdb, cause I remember there was a time when I really liked him, but I can’t remember why…

    Must’ve been around 1998 when he made Out of Sight and that Rat Pack movie. After that, he made a bunch of really shitty movies like Mission to Mars and Swordfish, but he did pop up with a cameo in Rush Hour 2. He must be friends with Chris Tucker or something. Then he made Ocean’s Eleven in 2001, which I enjoyed, but I haven’t seen anything he’s been in since, except for the two awful sequels to Ocean’s Eleven.

    Still… good actor.

  3. I’ll have to think about it, but I can’t think of any recent actors whose movies I’d see just based on their name alone. *Maybe* Tom Hanks or Will Smith. Also, maybe Russell Crowe or Leo. Actually, come to think about it, definitely Leo. I looked him up recently and Revolutionary Road and Body of Lies (I think that’s the name) are the only movie of his I haven’t seen yet. Oddly enough, Body of Lies also stars Russell Crowe and is directed by Ridley Scott. It’s on my Netflix queue, but I keep adding other stuff first. I’ve probably seen ever Tom Hanks movie.

  4. This wasn’t necessarily intentional, but since Gangs of New York, I’ve seen every Leonardo DiCaprio film, including Revolutionary Road and Body of Lies. Revolutionary Road was good, though kind of annoying. Or frustrating, perhaps. Body of Lies wasn’t too bad–I liked it all right–but it was sort of forgettable.

    I think Blood Diamond is when I decided I was just going to trust Leo–that was a really cool movie, and I’ve been wanting to see it again ever since. I don’t know if it’s Leo so much as the fact that his films almost always look interesting, but in any case, I watch them.

    My wife is in love with Tom Hanks. The other week, she made me put on Joe Versus the Volcano, since she’d never seen it. Then she fell asleep after ten minutes and I wound up watching it to the end. What a weird, unfulfilling movie. Oh, also, I watched the last 45 minutes or so of Dragnet the other week while I was making dinner. I have nobody to blame for that one but myself. But Tom Hanks is always good.

    There are a bunch of Will Smith movies I haven’t seen, but for the record, I’m one of the few people who seem to have enjoyed Hancock without too many reservations. The pacing was weird and the climax seemed strange, but I had a good time watching it, and it was just…different.

  5. I just looked up my boy Tom Hanks. I still have’t seen Toy Story 3, but other than that, I’ve seen everything he’s been in since the mid 80s. And among those, I’ve seen everything except a few obscure films that nobody has seen. So my point is this: Traitor should have more Tom Hanks.

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