Don Cheadle as Samir Horn
Guy Pearce as Roy Clayton
Jeff Daniels as Carter
Neal McDonough as Max Archer
Saïd Taghmaoui as Omar
Archie Panjabi as Chandra Banks
Mozhan Marnò as Leyla
Tom Barnett as Andrew Kelly
Myriam Blanckaert as Gilles’s Deputy
Scali Delpeyrat as Inspector Gilles
Lorena Gale as Melissa Horn
Hassam Ghancy as Bashir
Dani Jazzar as Munir
Aly Khan as Fareed
Paulino Nunes as Terry
Raad Rawi as Nathir
Simon Reynolds as Ted Blake
Jonathan Walker as Hayes
Directed by Jeffrey Nachmanoff
A thought-provoking addition to the current wave of real world political thrillers driven by brilliant characterization and a couple of unexpected twists that’ll keep you interested.
Samir Horn (Don Cheadle) has been caught selling detonators to alleged terrorists in third world countries and he’s jailed by the Yemen authorities. With help from the university-educated Omar (Said Taghmaoui), Samir escapes from prison and joins with Omar’s Muslim brothers to use his skills at bombmaking to help them with further acts of terror. Samir is hesitant at taking part with activities that might hurt or kill others, but his involvement with the group gets him onto the FBI’s Most Wanted list with agent Roy Clayton (Guy Pearce) in hot pursuit as Samir moves around the globe while trying to lay low.
The political thriller genre took a strange turn in 2001 when Al-Qaeda terrorists bombed the World Trade Center and the very idea of terrorism, not just in foreign countries but on our very soil, became such a large part of the American public consciousness that one could no longer take exaggerated situations like “Die Hard” or “Under Siege” seriously.
Since then, movies about the Middle East and terrorism have thrived as creative filmmakers have explored the subject matter, and while plenty of movies have attempted to venture into the minds of men when who willingly take part in acts of terrorism, few of these characters will have as much resonance with the viewer as Don Cheadle’s Samir Horn, a Muslim man from Sudan who ends up in the wrong place at the wrong time but uses a combination of know-how and ideals to infiltrated a terrorist faction for his own motivations.
After a flashback to Samir’s youth seeing his father being blown up in a car bombing, much of the first act follows Samir’s journey from opportunistic dealer in bomb components to unwitting inductee into an extremist terrorist faction, his constant struggle to do what’s right as dictated by his faith and a deeply-rooted conscience, both which have to be kept in check as he moves through the ranks. Like “Paradise Now,” still one of the best movies on the subject of terrorism, it’s hard to accept some of Samir’s decisions and his position as a benevolent bad guy, since he’s obviously not evil but does a lot of questionable things on his journey. In some ways, the character is similar to the one played by Derek Luke in the sadly under-seen “Catch a Fire” from the genre’s modern master Philip Noyce. It’s hard to immediately accept some of Samir’s decisions and associations, but it helps to create a character as complex as Cheadle’s Paul Rusesabagina in “Hotel Rwanda,” only one who takes a little more time to fully understand.
On the other side of the war on terror is Guy Pearce’s FBI Agent Roy Clayton, another chance for the underrated Australian actor to hide himself within a Southern character whose own religious background growing up with a Methodist preacher for a father helps him relate to his prey. One can’t say much more about the other members of the FBI team, which includes Clayton’s partner (Neil McDonough) and his supervisor, played by Jeff Daniels, without giving too much away. Like “The Departed” and “American Gangster,” the conflict between Samir and Clayton is set up early but then they’re kept apart for a good hour before the two face each other in person. It’s always a tough decision to keep the two main characters of a story apart for such a long but it makes Cheadle and Pearce’s scenes together that much more welcome and the high points of the film.
Cheadle’s performance is enhanced by an excellent cast of actors with Middle Eastern and Indian backgrounds, bringing added realism to the supporting roles; these include the always-excellent Saïd Taghmaoui and Archie Panjabi. Since Samir comes from a different background as his benefactors, it takes time for them to trust him, but the movie never makes it too overt who is the “traitor” of the title, nor does it overuse the word to shove it down one’s throat. The movie is more than just a cat-and-mouse game between Samir and the FBI ala the “Bourne” movies, openly dealing with serious questions about faith and how different Muslim factions see the world and their place in it.
“Traitor” would make you take notice if it was Nachmanoff’s third or fourth movie, but it’s even more impressive how this first-time director could develop a script with such depth without bogging it down in dialogue scenes, never remaining still for long as it ventures across the globe. The attention Nachmanoff pays to detail in terms of the building and planting of bombs makes some scenes in the movie even eerier due to their realism.
Although the film covers some of the same ground as “Syriana” and “Rendition,” the film isn’t nearly as complicated, essentially focusing on Samir, Clayton and a handful of characters, rather than being another overly-layered film trying to follow three or four storylines at once. By doing this, the movie moves briskly with an ebb and flow of new characters entering the picture as Samir builds trust within the leaders of the organization.
Some aspects of the plot are predictable, especially if you’ve seen the commercials or trailer that give away a key plot point, but even knowing that, nothing is ever exactly what it seems in this movie. Even if you think you know where things are going, there are enough twist and unexpected developments to keep things interesting.
The Bottom Line:
Jeffrey Nachmanoff’s first film is an intelligent, tense political thriller on par with “Syriana” and “Munich.” Even though it sometimes suffers from erratic pacing, what makes the movie so riveting is Don Cheadle’s stark portrayal of Samir Horn, a character that straddles enough shades of gray to make you think long and hard whether or not what he does is right. Ultimately, it’s a satisfying and thought-provoking experience for those who thrive on the genre.