Traitor: Film Review

In Traitor, we're introduced to Samir Horn (Don Cheadle, Hotel Rwanda), a bona-fide man of Allah with a past harsh enough to send anyone into a spiteful adulthood. Even in the opening shots, the mystery behind his motivations and influences are suspect; concurrently, as with any film with single-word titles like Deception or Repulsion, a tone gets sets in stone even with the simple scenes of a young Sudanese boy reading the Qur'an. When an explosion rattles both his nerves and ours, it serves as a catalyst that would ignite the energetic flow behind Jeffrey Nachmanoff's globe-trotting terrorist thriller. With pounding intensity, Traitor harnesses this explosive rhythm and runs with it to create an outstanding, unbearably tense picture riddled with minute socio and theological messages.

Equal parts espionage and police/government procedural, Traitor meticulously glues together influences from both Infernal Affairs and the Bourne series to craft its hefty international outreach. Following a botched arms deal in Yemen (actually, the sale of igniters) with a Middle Eastern terrorist organization, now ex-US Special Forces operative Samir finds himself locked in prison with the same men that believe he sabotaged the deal by contacting the authorities. What they don't realize is that Samir is receiving equal amounts of heat from the U.S. Government for his involvement with the organization, receiving the "hard word" from agents Roy Clayton (Guy Pearce, Memento) and Max Archer (Neal McDonough, Band of Brothers) to reveal his cards. But when the head of the radical Muslim organization orchestrates a jail break, Samir has little option than to feed off his budding relationship with him and flee the scene with his newly befriended arsonists. Of course, it all seems too simple to be coincidence.

As to be expected, the big trick underneath Traitor's sleeve is the mystery involving Samir's intentions. When he goes in for his first deal, the answer seems obvious; however, as more and more leaks out about his personal beliefs and activities since the mid '80s, it's hard to make heads or tails of his character. Part of this stems from Nachmanoff's nails-on-nerves script, which blends the narrative's immediacy with timely, significant dialogue. He takes the more theatrical road when illustrating plot points such as the initial interrogation scene between Samir, Clayton, and Archer, as well as with an intricate motivational segment where Samir and his new colleagues recruit martyrs for their cause. In effect, it creates a breathless atmosphere that also allows for an undercurrent of true messages to coast underneath all the buzzing hubbub.

It's obvious that Traitor is writer/director Nachmanoff's baby through and through, as it breathes with emotion and exhaustive tension that ceases to let up -- even in the revelatory moments near the core of the film where you might expect the energy to taper off. What's interesting about his setting is the surprising lack of political motives behind his film. He incorporates little parallels between the superpowers, sure, like when he splices together footage of both the U.S. Government and the Muslim organization conducting background checks on Samir in near-identical fashion. It pivots more, however, on the critique revolving around mankind's decisions underneath the eyes of God. Along with that, it subtly pounds away on the idea that these extremists are misinterpreting, and are ultimately misaligned with, true theological messages. The only misstep that might separate Traitor from more universal appeal comes in the heavy tone that results from this triad of influence -- government, radicalism, and religion -- and the way it whips together a thick cloud of tension and bubbling emotion that's likely to both strike chords and rub some the wrong way.

But the big success -- as well as the main reason to soak in this haughty bundle of nerves -- is Don Cheadle's portrayal of Samir, which will certainly become on of the more understated and underappreciated performances from 2008. In a filmic environment where the flip-flopping espionage narrative echoes out like a broken record, the Reign Over Me and Crash actor has infused his spy-like character with a different sort of energy. Samir's certainly aggressive and exhibits his trained arsonist and combat roots, but it's the resolve behind his directives that makes him a compelling character. If there's anybody that can portray a semi-likable "everyman" wrapped up in the dangerous exploits of Muslim terrorism, it'd be the nuanced Cheadle; the ways that he carries his God-driven character through the underbelly of radicalism is sublime. He, in ways, mirrors Chiwetel Ejiofor's performance in Dirty Pretty Things, only instead of Ejiofor's clear good-doer disposition, we can't comfortably outline Samir's motives between Cheadle's outstanding portrayal and Nachmanoff's tightly-etched script.

For all intensive purposes, the first and seconds acts are completely about Samir, his history, and the world's interpretation of his presence. When his activities come to fruition and start to closely endanger society, however, we begin to see further glimpses into the U.S. Government's operations with Pearce's Clayton as top banana. Along with Death Defying Acts, Pearce has chosen roles this year that have been central to storylines while sidestepping the label of being the "lead". Here, he flexes his character actor muscle as the Southern-drawn son of a Baptist minister with plenty of attitude. He sucks in all the attention revolving around the government-pivoting sequences, instead making these bustling procedural bits more about Clayton's differing "man of God" persona trying to dissect the actions of another as he hunts down Samir. Nachmanoff knew what he was doing when he built these two characters -- creating an entity seeped in terrorist activity that the audience can't help but like, while also constructing a U.S. agent that breeches close to being an anti-villain in his angered intensity. Once again, it's a mix-and-match game that all comes back to making head or tails about Samir.

And it all pays off when Traitor detonates near the film's core, building into a breakneck political and terrorist conflagration that does nothing but flare upwards during its big revelatory peak. After that, Nachmanoff lets his film coast on cinematographer J. Michael Muro's starkly-photographed current of explosions, backstabs, and labyrinthine exposition as the terrorist network's cards all spill on the table. Their tactics tap into the latent fears of another post-9/11 attack on American soil, which will prove to be a plot element that'll heighten the love-or-hate sentiments about its subject matter. No matter which side you fall on, it's hard to deny the thickness of Traitor's material -- which will severely limit the return value to its deadweight intensity. It's a great film about a very touchy subject, one that gives up possession of a clearly-defined political message in the process of building an unrelentingly engrossing thriller. Though we're talking about a film that may spurn more awareness about the realism behind the tactics used by terrorists to amalgamate to their environments, Nachmanoff's film foremost revolves around being both a thoroughly compelling character study and an equally-matched gauntlet of espionage stratagems.


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