If you’re going to watch at least one of the five (yes, five) movies starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson being released this year, you could probably do a lot worse than Snitch.
Loosely based on real life events chronicled in a 1999 episode of the PBS documentary series Frontline, Snitch relates the efforts of respected businessman, John Matthews, to win freedom for his teenage son, Jason, after the boy is apprehended in a Drug Enforcement Administration sting operation. He is given a mandatory ten-year prison sentence despite having done nothing more than foolishly agree to accept a mailed package of drugs from a friend. When Jason refuses to become a snitch himself (a common offer made to first-time offenders), the elder Matthews proposes a plan to the DEA that involves convincing one of his employees, an ex-convict, to introduce him to a local drug dealer under the pretense of using Matthews’ trucking company as a means of transporting the dealer’s product. Once the transaction is arranged, the DEA can record the operation, arrest those involved, and commute Jason’s sentence to one year. The DEA assents to the plan and things go as scheduled; however, an offhand comment made by the dealer reveals he has connections to the leader of one of Mexico’s largest drug cartels. Unwilling to let the opportunity to capture such a high profile target pass them by, the DEA reneges on their agreement, offering instead to release Jason immediately if John will aid them one last time. The catch, of course, is that doing so will almost certainly result in John’s violent death.
With a setup like that, one could be forgiven for expecting Snitch to be just another B-level action romp (especially when considering the fact that the movie stars an extremely popular professional wrestler and is directed by a man whose credits in stunt work exceed his credits in directing by a 6 to 1 ratio). Surprisingly, though, what director Ric Roman Waugh actually delivers is a sometimes tense and occasionally involving mixture of caper movie and family drama. Yes, the climax (reluctantly?) brings some obligatory gunplay and exploding cars, but for the majority of its running time, Snitch avoids standard action fare and tries to keep a realistic, gritty tone. Despite the fact that Dwayne Johnson has muscles on top of his muscles and would likely be portrayed as invulnerable in most any other film, the first time he approaches a drug dealer on the street in Snitch he is beaten senseless within ten seconds and nearly receives a bullet to his head. Johnson’s character is no superman, but rather just some guy trying to do what he can to help his son. And to his credit, even though he spends his non-acting days tossing 300-pound men around a wrestling ring, Johnson does a credible job playing an Average Joe. Sure, there’s a couple of scenes where he seems to just be making facial expressions rather than conveying real emotions, but on the whole, Johnson is entirely convincing.
Of course, it helps immensely that for most of the movie Johnson is surrounded by a large number of “That Guys”, you know, the kind of actors you recognize from other movies or television shows who are always good, but rarely get the lead roles. There’s Jon Bernthal (that guy from The Walking Dead), Barry Pepper (that guy from The Green Mile), Melina Kanakaredes (that gal from CSI:NY), Michael Kenneth Williams (that guy from The Wire), and Benjamin Bratt (that guy from Law and Order) – all of whom are excellent. In fact, the only supporting cast member who appears slightly out of place at first is Susan Sarandon, whose movie star persona seems at odds with the grimy street level existence depicted in the rest of the film.
And yet, this is probably just what Waugh intended. Having previously directed the movie Felon (2008), another film about a man some could argue shouldn’t be in prison, it’s obvious that Waugh has some beefs with the American penal system. With Snitch, the intent is to convince the audience of what Waugh sees as the injustice inherent in a legal system that purposely entraps people like Jason in the hopes of using them as snitches against those higher up the drug ladder. But, at least as depicted in Snitch, it rarely works out that way; almost every main character in the film, with the notable exception of two, spends the majority of his time battered, bruised, and generally covered in filth. The only ones who remain clean throughout are Sarandon’s attorney/aspiring politician, who uses the DEA program to garner favorable public approval ratings, and Bratt’s cartel leader, who resides in a mansion and is never once shown breaking a sweat (remarkable considering the copious amounts of perspiration in the movie). In the world of Snitch, the system only really harms those on the bottom, possibly trapping them forever in a bleak and dirty world while those on top stay untarnished. And to make sure this inequity is on your mind as you exit the theater, Snitch ends with a quote onscreen regarding the lengthy sentences received under mandatory drug sentencing laws versus the relatively lighter judgments handed out to rapists, child molesters, and other violent offenders.
However, as worthwhile as that discussion may be, what is more likely to stick with those who watch Snitch is the simple family story it depicts, one that has a bit more resonance given the time of year the movie was released. You see, despite the fact that Jason and his father are estranged or that Jason is legitimately in jail due to a bad decision on his part, John Matthews doggedly pursues every course of action he can to bring his son home. Inevitably, there comes a moment in Snitch where John realizes that in order to save his son, he’s going to have to give up his own life, either symbolically through entering into witness protection, or literally by having his body riddled with bullets. When his wife frantically tries to change his mind by reminding him that he has other children to worry about, John unhesitatingly pursues his course of action because the one child still needs him. On a pragmatic level, we might be able to find some arguments against what John is doing, but on a deeper level we understand, especially now that we are knee-deep in Lent, with Easter just a month away. We have a heavenly Father who, through the person of Christ, offered his own life so that we, his children, could be freed of the things in this world that shackle us. And as the Parable of the Sheep so simply reminds us, even if all the rest of his children were already safe, God would make the sacrifice for the one who was lost. How could John (or we) as a parent do any less?