But the issue here is confused morality. How do you reconcile a seemingly good man doing heinous things?
Guy Pearce (LA Confidential) and Don Cheadle (Crash) head this international terrorism story, with one my of my favorite actors, Jeff Daniels (The Squid and The Whale) in a small but critical role.
Cheadle plays Samir Horn, an American-educated Muslim, who comes to terrorism early in his life after witnessing the car bombing of a family member. Reminiscent of all those "why is this good guy doing bad stuff" political thrillers, we start trying to wrestle with that question early on in the film as we find Horn in the company of some very unsavory characters.
Horn shows up on the radar of FBI agent Roy Clayton (Pearce). It is their relationship, the nuances of good and evil in the world, where loyalties really lie, and the complications of the "truth" which make this one of the more fascinating and believable international thrillers I have seen in recent years.
Those Middle Eastern locales we have become familiar with in recent films - Babel and Syriana come to mind - work especially well when the cinematographer gets us even farther out of our comfort zone. If you remember The Insider (for many of us it was our first glimpse of Russell Crowe) and that grainy, uncomfortable hand-held, we're-being-abducted feel of that film's Middle East sequence, the same man is behind the camera on Traitor, James Muro. But it's selective hand held. And that is exactly the look director/writer Jeffrey Nachmanoff wanted for parts of this film, a slightly staccato uneasiness that accentuates this world of unfamiliarity, uncertainty, and ultimately danger.
Horn is an ex special ops soldier who has become involved with a terrorist organization. But there is something in those Cheadle eyes, and when he offers his food to another inmate in a Yemen prison, you know there is innate goodness to this character. But there is also this badness. We are meant to feel the moral ambiguity, and perhaps not just in the film. As the Jeff Daniels character says to Horn at one point, "Remember, we're the good guys." Horn's non-verbal unflinching gaze says it all to anyone paying attention. Walking away, he finally says sarcastically and almost to himself, "Is that right?"
Pearce is one of those actors, and I've seen almost everything he's done, who leaves you no doubt he IS the character you're watching. Pearce is one of those actors for me that absolutely controls the frame when he is on. He is outrageously convincing.
Let's face it, we don't want to know too much about how our enemies are trying to hurt us. It is something our collective unconscious is happy having collectively unconscious. Traitor makes us face that discomfort albeit in an imaginary way.
Traitor brings us into a world, the Middle East, most of us don't know. It then goes a step further and takes us on a journey with that minority of mostly men for whom death in the pursuit of mass killings of westerners is salvation. And it's done without the stereotypes we have become accustomed to, without the simple plot lines which make it all too easy to see who's right, and with all the complexity which is, after all, the world of which we are a part.
Directed by Jeffrey Nachmanoff
Starring: Guy Pearce, Don Cheadle and Jeff Daniels. Rated PG-13
Separate ways, worlds apart. Traitor works well on two very important levels: one, as just good old fashioned thriller with a wide variety of settings - London, Marseilles, Yemen, Toronto, and of course Washington DC - and two, it reminds us in not-so-subtle ways that the people who brought us 9/11 haven't gone away.