Rated PG-13 for drug content and sequences of violence
Starring Dwayne Johnson, Barry Pepper, Jon Bernthal, Susan Sarandon, Michael Kenneth Williams, Ravi Gavron, Melina Kanakaredes, Nadine Velazquez and Benjamin Bratt.
Directed by Ric Roman Waugh
Written by Justin Haythe and Ric Roman Waugh
The Rock is in over his shiny bald head, and the drug dealers have nothing to do with it.
In “Snitch,” the ex-wrestler plays John Matthews, a hapless father attempting to take down a major cartel in order to keep his son out of jail. While the trailers make it look like the usual crash-and-smash action flick, the movie is really more of a gritty moral drama where everyone is forced to make terrible choices. It needs a leading man who can really express his character’s helpless fear and determination, and The Rock just can’t quite pull it off.
It’s sad, because “Snitch” has some potentially important things to say about the fairness of drug sentencing. Because of mandatory sentencing laws, judges aren’t allowed to take any mitigating factors into account even on smaller drug crimes such as possession. The only way a person can get his or her sentence reduced is by turning in someone else, which means teens who are furthest away from the drug world get the worst of the deal. Either they help set up another teen, or they stay in jail for years.
The movie is based on a true story, which was part of a “Frontline” special that aired on PBS a few years ago. When a filmmaker fictionalizes this kind of story, they need to justify themselves by moving beyond even the most compelling facts. “Frontline” already told us how and why everything happened. “Snitch” needed to really delve into the emotional implications in order for it to be worth the audience’s time.
The Rock tries, poor man. His love for his teenage son feels genuine, as does his impatience with his estranged ex-wife. But Dwayne Johnson (The Rock’s real name) doesn’t have a wide range of facial expressions to choose from, and he’s incapable of communicating the full cost of the decisions his character has to make. Since it’s his desperation and love driving the main plot, the entire movie suffers as a result.
The supporting cast does what it can to pick up the slack. As District Attorney Joanne Keeghan, Susan Sarandon keeps her character’s ruthless ambition enough of an undercurrent to be unsettling. As Jason Collins, the kid who gets sucked into the system, Ravi Gavron gives his character enough fragile courage that you empathize with him by the end. The script could have helped by giving us more of a sense of what he was going through, but Gavron’s face during the prison phone calls with his father makes up for a lot.
So does Jon Bernthal, the man who really should have been at the center of the movie. His character, a former shot-caller for a local gang, starts the movie determined to hold onto his first legitimate job and do right by his financially struggling family. Then the Rock pulls him into the scheme to take down the cartel, lying to him the entire time, and his grip on the life he tried so hard to hold onto starts slipping.
Through it all, Bernthal makes the audience feel every moment of his character’s rage, determination, desperation, hope and grief. It’s a wonderfully nuanced portrait of a man caught in a world that’s out of his control, and made me believe everything The Rock couldn’t.