Movie Review: Snitch
February 20, 2013
I'm gonna be the first one to "snitch" on SNITCH. Knowing writer/director Ric Roman Waugh, brother director Scott Waugh and their dad, Fred, it was my privilege to not only work on second unit with Fred 30 years ago, but get to know Ric and Scott and watch them move from being stuntmen following in their father's footsteps, and then becoming first rate writers and directors - Scott with “Act of Valor” and Ric with films like “Felon” and now, SNITCH. While many believe that "stuntmen" turned directors only care about the action, that is not the case. Story and character are the focus of the films they direct with action being secondary. For Waugh, “ My [directing] career for me is from “Felon” on. It’s where I stopped worrying about people thought and what people were perceiving me as and what they thought an ex-stuntman should be making and what they thought an ex-stuntman should be doing. . . I’m gonna make what I want to make. These are the movies that I go see; these are the movies that I want to be a part of.” Trust me when I tell you that SNITCH is a movie you want to see!
Inspired by a true story, John Matthews is a successful businessman, loving husband and father. Divorced with a teenaged son, Jason, John has a less than amicable relationship with his first wife, Sylvie, and is now in his second, seemingly happy, marriage and father to a little girl. While John juggles the pressures of business, birthday parties, alimony and trying to take care of everyone around him, including his employees, and seems to be doing it well, the pressure cooker is about to explode when Jason is arrested for a drug distribution crime, punishable by a mandatory minimum prison sentencing of 10 years for non-violent first-time offenders. Although obviously a mistake with Jason taking the fall for a wayward friend of his trying to smuggle drugs into the States, because of federal law, there is no negotiation.
With pressure from Sylvie (feeling her own frustration at this happening on “her parental watch”) for John to “do something”, knowing that Jason won’t survive 10 years in prison, John’s desperation is only compounded. Looking at every possible avenue of help, John finally finds one with U.S. Attorney Joanne Keeghan. Hard-nosed, tough talking and campaigning for political office, Keeghan soon sees the mutual benefits of a proposed solution by John whereby Jason would go free and Keeghan’s star would rise - John goes undercover to infiltrate a drug cartel which has eluded capture and takedown and when he gets Keeghan enough info to topple the trafficking, she gets the glory. But this turns out to be not just any cartel. This one is run by Juan Carlos “El Topo” Pintera. Pulling one of his employees into the fray, ex-con Daniel James who knows the ins and outs of the local drug trade problem, John and Daniel go balls to the wall and risk everything, as citizens, as men, as fathers.
Shortly after he did “Southland Tales”,Dwayne Johnson spoke about his desire to move forward with substantive acting performances, be they drama or comedy, but more particularly, movies with family relationships and dynamics. And while he has successfully done that with films like “Race to Witch Mountain”, “The Game Plan”, “Journey 2:Mysterious Island”, it hasn’t been until SNITCH that his character is completely fleshed out, mature, textured, grounded, a full-fledged father, trying to balance a business, an ex-wife, a teenaged son, and a new family with a little girl. He has come into his own as the “head of the family” and Johnson carries the dramatic load wonderfully, bringing the harsh realities and responsibilities of parenthood and life to the forefront. As John Matthews, Johnson brings an intensity to the film that while celebrating paternal love is layered with the spot on emotion with the frustration of parenthood, business, and most notably, the feeling of helplessness and need to protect one’s family. “Vulnerability” is not a word one thinks of when talking about Dwayne Johnson, but as John, he is just that - vulnerable, a fish out of water, real. With SNITCH, Johnson proves he can handle a dramatic lead and then some.
When it came to developing the character and the tone of the film, according to Waugh, “Duane and I sat down and he just said, ‘Where are you going with this?’ and I said, ‘Honesty. I want it to be really an honest movie.’ . . .Something I really want to show is in this movie is that I don’t want to do the movie version where everybody’s supportive and everything’s good. I want this to be about what’s wrong with our country, and how it’s the self-absorption that people have, where people don’t act civil when they’re under pressure and it gets really nasty. I want to show that. And I said, ‘By the way, Duane, everybody has seen you in movies where you’re always the earnest person coming to terms with things, but we’re not playing this earnest. We’re playing this real.’ And Duane said, ‘I’m in!’”
“Playing this real” in SNITCH also involves action, and this is action not for faint of heart. No stunt person here as Johnson not only does his own stunts, but his own 18-wheeler semi-truck driving, including a jackknife, the latter with director Waugh strapped to the grill of truck, camera in hand, capturing the full terror, panic and determination of Johnson as he’s driving. Dare I say, ****ING AWESOME! This demand for authenticity and perfection on both their parts erupts in emotion that just pulls one into the story and into the "hot seat" of parenthood, not to mention the intricacies (and corruption) of the federal justice system.
Adding deeper meaning and interest to SNITCH is the completeness of the father-son dynamic on multiple socio-economic levels. As drug king pin, Juan Carlos “El Topo” Pintera, Benjamin Bratt is cool, collected and controlled, conveying methodical, manipulative tacit emotion, but thanks to Waugh's visual tone and camerawork, we are able to see that El Topo, too, is doing what he does to provide a good life for his family and will do anything to love and protect his son. El Topo’s son is notable offsides or his toys are in the living room while dad and son watch a soccer match. Just a few brief shots establish an ever-present father-son situation. Particularly effective not only to Bratt’s performance but in the context of the film as a whole is an ever so slight gesture to El Topo’s men to lay down their guns when his son is in the car with him. Quietly touching, Bratt shows another side of El Topo that is telling not only as to the character, but supportive of the theme - a father will do anything for his child.
As former con turned straight and trying to make a life for his own son is Jon Bernthal, Daniel James. Called upon by Johnson's John, who has hired Daniel in spite of his being an ex-con, to help him infiltrate the drug cartel, as Daniel, Bernthal walks a fine line perfectly portraying and conveying the demons that plague Daniel between wanting to keep his job and help his family and his young son while staying clean himself. And again, it is ultimately the father-son dynamic that pulls him into the situation - and it's a situation that Daniel will not walk away from once involved because another man's son's life is on the line. Trepidatious intensity is the description for Bernthal. A true master of emotion with minimal dialogue.
But SNITCH isn’t all about the boys. Make way for Susan Sarandon who is absolutely delicious as federal prosecutor Joanne Keeghan. Sarandon oozes self-absorption and “what’s in it for me”, all to striking effect. Adding a touch of lightness is seeing Sarandon go toe-to-toe with Dwayne Johnson. A delightful dance. But the real shining star is Barry Pepper. As Keeghan’s “right-hand man” and lead undercover man, Agent Cooper, Barry Pepper delivers one of the best performances of his career, walking the dichotomous line of loyalty to the job or living with his conscience. Stunning performance.
Written by Ric Roman Waugh and Justin Haythe, and directed by Waugh, with SNITCH, Waugh puts all the pieces of the puzzle together and achieves a perfect blend of story driven intensity and action, all fueled by fathers' loves for their sons. It's not often that we see the power of a father's love; it is typically brushed aside, assumed, not really addressed but for a pat on the back, a fist bump or embarrassed "you know." Taking a true life story of the lengths a father went to save his son and using that as a base, Waugh then adds his own emotional father-son dynamic, layers in his knowledge of the criminal justice and prison system and ultimately ices the cake with action. The layering and texturing - and by making the relationships and emotion the priority with action secondary - is a powerfully resonating emotional draw to the story and the film, resulting in a not only a fascinating study of fathers-sons from both sides of the tracks so to speak, but a fascinating study of human nature. People often talk about a mother lion protecting her cub, well, just take a look at what some fathers will do.
The story is itself beyond fascinating. The fact that it's based on a true story about a father going undercover to get his innocent son out of jail (thanks to some really screwed up laws) is a testament to the real man and to Ric Roman Waugh for bringing it to the screen. SNITCH sheds a light on just another of the fallacies of the judicial system. Solid story. Twists and turns and compelling material involving the undercover infiltration. Solid characters. Intimate character studies that grab hold of your heart. And again, honest and real. For Waugh, “I didn’t want to put movie characters in where everybody is trying to be warm and fuzzy. No, this is what happens.”
Three necessary annoyances in the film are the wives and ex-wife of John Matthews and Daniel James. While the lack of civility and demanding nature of each of the women just garners sympathy and empathy for the men, this self-absorption and frustration of each is a necessary evil of life. According to Waugh, the women were written this way, “on purpose. It’s on purpose and not to demonize the females but to make it completely honest.” Particularly outspoken on her character of Sylvie is Melina Kanakaredes. As Waugh tells it, on finishing a scene, Kanakaredes let loose with her feelings stating, “I’m ****ing pissed off. I understand this frustration. These men, all these men, are proactive in what’s happening. The women in the movie are only reactive. We can only react to the information we’re getting.” Waugh “[a]pplauds the women in the movie because they went for it. They got it.”
Reteaming with cinematographer Dana Gonzales (who is also working with Waugh on his next film, “Currency”) the visuals are impeccable. Glossy, sharp, crisp, angular but textured in palette and tone. A seamless collaboration between Gonzales and Waugh, “[W]ith SNITCH, it was really important to me that, because we were going to go from suburbia to the monochromatic downtown area where you’re dealing with Keeghan’s [Susan Sarandon] office and all that, and then to deal with the urban world which becomes very kind of brown and primary darker colors, was to really infuse, not desaturate, the movie where that color was gone. I really wanted to have this kind of warmth and really punch in the colors of different places that you go so that you realize that this looks like real America, real middle America where it’s a federal law...and this could hit anybody. I wanted it to feel like all Americana but on both sides of the track. I didn’t want it to be this tripped down noir look in the ‘hood’. I wanted it to feel like what it really does feel like when you go in these neighborhoods.”
Notable is a steely, masculine feel to the film that is a tangible tine of the thematic father-son dynamic. The challenge for Waugh and Gonzales was “To get a steely feel of the environment itself but also to protect skin tones...I’m all about diversity. I’m all about that we live in a country that is not just white and black anymore, it is a tapestry. And I really wanted people’s skin tones to be fleshed out where you see the diversity that we deal with in this country. So it was about maintaining that integrity.” And to achieve that visual integrity, Waugh called on the techniques of legendary cinematographer Harris Savides. “He didn’t light the subjects. He lit the room. He lit the atmosphere and then he let the subjects go in the room and do their thing. And that’s what Dana and I do. We’re not looking to put the perfect backlight on somebody’s hair. We make sure the subjects, like Susan, look their best, but we light the room for the atmosphere for what it should be, what it should represent and then let everything take place from there.”
And then there’s the action. Shoot-outs, car chases, and a freeway chase sequence that is OUTSTANDING! I fully expect Waugh, running the film as first unit only and thus himself shooting scenes normally reserved for second unit, to grab some stunt and action accolades for this one. Camera work provides interesting angles that are not necessarily symmetrically framed, metaphorically adding to the emotional conflict within and among each character.
Not to be overlooked is Antonio Pinto’s score. Subtly driving and thoughtful. Furthering his collaborative style of filmmaking, Waugh had discussions with Pinto as to the design of the score. Wanting to “take the risk of doing something that’s got much more originality to it, Waugh wanted to “[p]ut the tone of this movie off center. Put it in a way where it feels a lot more accessible and not telegraphing what’s happening; just supporting the emotions and letting the emotions do there own thing.”
Empowering. Inspiring. Thrilling. SNITCH is a testament to the power of a father's love - both in front of and behind the camera.
Directed by Ric Roman Waugh
Written by Ric Roman Waugh and Justin Haythe
Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Jon Bernthal, Susan Sarandon, Barry Pepper, Benjamin Bratt