Snitch, the latest film from ex-stuntman turned director Ric Roman Waugh (Felon), follows a desperate father who will stop at nothing to free his innocent son from prison following a drug bust. On the surface, the film intersperses character drama with understated action set pieces but Waugh also spends a significant amount of the run time addressing federal drug laws that entrap first offenders and dole out extra-lengthy sentences.
Following a draft by Revolutionary Road screenwriter, Justin Haythe (who also penned The Lone Ranger), Waugh rewrote the Snitch script and then cast Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson for the film’s lead. Known for testosterone-heavy action flicks (along with campy kid-friendly adventures), Johnson’s presence might cause moviegoers to assume that Snitch places action before character; however, Waugh delivers a much more subtle film – which is to the movie’s overall credit but might come as a disappointment to fans that were hoping to see an over-the-top thriller.
For the most part, Snitch is successful in its ambitions. There are a few explosions and intense gun fights but, overall, the movie is focused on drama and social criticism. The majority of the plot exists in a moral grey area – allowing a unique look at character tropes that audiences will have seen time and time again on screen: the naive father in over his head, an ex-con trying to do right by his family, and a tough-as-nails Federal Prosecutor who priorities politics over people. In spite of some familiar elements, the moment to moment interactions in Snitch are intriguing enough for viewers to invest in (and believe) the core storyline of a man that sacrifices his safety (as well as the safety of others) in order to protect his family.
Snitch makes liberal use of “based on true events” branding, as the events are almost entirely fictional – with only the actual laws serving as the basis for the film. When suburban teenager, Jason (Rafi Gavron), makes a naive but life-changing mistake and gets arrested on charges of attempted narcotics sales, his father, John Matthews (Dwayne Johnson), makes a desperate plea with federal prosecutor, Joanne Keeghan (Susan Sarandon). In exchange for reducing his son’s sentence, John offers to go undercover and lead the police to actual drug dealers. The only problem? John doesn’t know any drug dealers and – after a failed solo-attempt – he turns to one of his employees, Daniel (Jon Bernthal), an ex-con attempting to get his life together, for an introduction into the world of narcotic sales.
Despite a headlining role for Johnson, the federal drug laws are the real star of the film, with nearly every single character and situation built around the core set-up. Of course, not every family will be able to go undercover for a federal narcotics task force and, despite the spotlight that Waugh places on imperfect drug enforcement laws, the film fails to present any real-life answers. Instead, Waugh presents a series of interesting interactions that arbitrarily dance from on-the-nose social commentary to a more ambiguous moral plane that allows for viewers to make up their own minds. As a result, the plot follows a relatively standard progression with few surprises but absorbing subject matter and characters (as well as subsequent drama) are enough to keep things engaging even when the backdrop starts to look familiar.
Johnson’s portrayal of John Matthews is admirable – with a tenderness and subtlety that might surprise film fans who are less familiar with the actors full breadth of work. That said, Johnson’s larger-than-life physical presence can be a distraction in certain scenes – especially when the movie routinely asks viewers to accept that Matthews isn’t capable of defending himself at all. To counteract Johnson’s size, Matthews is a mix of likable recklessness and relatable apprehension; however, at times, the performance breaks down and audiences will see the actor pushing an intentionally weak persona – instead of relying on delicate nuance.
This isn’t to say that Johnson can only step into macho tough guy roles but, in Snitch, there is a noticeable disconnect between characterization and onscreen depiction that will definitely test suspension of disbelief on occasion. It’s calculated risk/reward casting because the script doesn’t benefit from a muscle-bound action star, and Waugh’s choice to cast Johnson can be distracting, but the actor’s performance is solid and a major credit to the success of the movie.
The supporting cast is full of familiar faces (and characters) that don’t stray too far from convention but serve the main storyline with respectable competence. Jon Bernthal, known best for his role as Shane on AMC’s The Walking Dead, is a standout with an understated but powerful performance as Daniel that outshines a number of the more accomplished veterans in the cast. Barry Pepper offers another engaging turn, this time as drug task force leader Agent Cooper – easily one of the more interesting additions in the film. Conversely, Susan Sarandon and Benjamin Bratt are only provided with cliche one-note characters that primarily act as exposition machines – with few rewarding overtones.
As indicated before, Johnson’s appearance in Snitch will lead many moviegoers to assume that the film is action fare – and those viewers will likely walk away underwhelmed. Despite a few brief gunfights and one over-the-top car chase, the film’s primary tension comes from low-key moments that teeter on real life danger – where one minor slip of the tongue could mean the difference between life or death for Matthews and his family. In fact, some of the greatest scenes of tension in Snitch are the result of nothing happening – and the fear that unresolved danger leaves in its wake.
Snitch has lofty ambitions – moving quickly between on-the-nose commentary, captivating interpersonal drama, and brief scenes of competent action. Waugh does not successfully payoff every element introduced in the movie – leaving a lot of overarching themes and moral questions dangling in the air. Still, scene to scene Snitch is a smart drama that uses solid performances and an emotional story to cast light on controversial subject matter. It’s not the action movie that some viewers might have been expecting but that’s not a bad thing – since it delivers a surprisingly immersive character drama instead.
If you’re still on the fence about Snitch, check out the trailer below:
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Snitch runs 112 minutes and is Rated PG-13 for drug content and sequences of violence. Now playing in theaters.