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“Let the punishment fit the crime,” so the old Gilbert and Sullivan song goes. It’s a concept that most of us may never really think about. But what if one little mistake, perhaps a moment of weakness when a teen succumbs to peer pressure, ends up incurring a punishment that is grossly out of proportion with that error?
Such is the case in Snitch, an action film that does far more than blow up cars and shoot lots of guns (though there’s enough of such content to please action fans). This movie raises more than one important issue, doing its best to trounce the bad and commend the good.
The results of this effort include laudable themes that demonstrate the importance of fathers, familial love, marriage, and show the very real presence of evil in the world. In addition, the film’s depiction of the consequences that await a teen who follows peer pressure to do what seems cool or fun are enough to scare any such ideas out of otherwise “good” kids.
Yet Snitch fails to walk the straight and narrow itself, as the film stumbles into at least one major moral misstep and deals in enough foul language to warrant a distribution of filth charge. Ultimately, the unnecessary inclusion of such negative content in a film that attempts to instruct and better our country and its citizens is counterproductive, disappointing, and should land Snitch on most viewers’ conviction lists.
When Jason Collins tells his best friend that he’d rather not receive a package of drugs from him in the mail, Jason isn’t quite convincing. He and his girlfriend have wanted to “try” some of the heavier stuff, and this would be their chance. But, he knows it would be unsafe to receive the drugs at his house, so his better instincts lead him to tell his friend, “no.”
It turns out to be too little, too late when the delivery man shows up at the door. Though Jason knows what’s in the package, he nervously accepts it and takes it to his room. Behind the closed door, he opens the package to see the drugs and something else quite unexpected—a U.S. government tracking device.
About to start college, Jason is instead suddenly faced with a distribution of narcotics charge and a prison sentence of at least ten years. That is, unless he will snitch on his drug dealing or drug buying buddies. Jason is in the awkward position of knowing no other drug offenders than the friend who set him up (the nice “friend” trapped Jason in order to get his own sentence shortened). Recognizing his desperate situation, Jason is asked if he will set up a friend to take a fall for buying drugs in exchange for having his prison sentence reduced. His answer is a definitive “no.”
Every first-time drug offender gets this same treatment, but not every first-timer has a father like Jason’s. His dad, John Matthews, is happily situated in his second marriage and a successful trucking business, busy working hard and doting on his young daughter and second wife. John never sees his teenaged son, who wants so little to do with his father that he legally took his mother’s maiden name for his own.
When Sylvie, John’s ex-wife, calls to tell him what happened to their son, John drops everything and goes to his son’s aid. But it seems impossible to help Jason when the District Attorney insists that she must have a drug dealer in order to be able to reduce Jason’s mandatory sentence. While John is searching for a way to stop his son’s jail sentence, Jason is put into prison and starts suffering abuse and horrors from the other inmates—a parent’s worst nightmare.
Refusing to let his son suffer so grievously, John strikes a deal with the DA. If he can get the DEA a clean bust on a big-time drug dealer, Jason’s sentence will be reduced. What John soon finds out is that the drug cartel world is darker and more dangerous than he imagined. If he survives his undercover sting, it may be only to learn what happens to people who snitch.
Honor, integrity, character—these are words one does not often hear used in an action flick. Boasting equal parts drama and action, Snitch has more opportunity than many films of the genre to explore such themes. John, for example, makes a point of telling his son that he admires his honorable stance, while John himself is putting everything on the line to protect his son the best he can.
Though apparently a less-than-ideal dad before, thanks to workaholic tendencies, John emerges in this film as the vehicle for Snitch’s greatest positive message—the importance of fathers. Like a good snitch, this film points the finger at John’s absence and the resentment created by his new marriage and family as crucial factors in Jason’s poor decisions.
When John steps in to help his son at last, he does so while acknowledging that he made mistakes before. John’s effort to make amends and save Jason now are nothing short of heroic, offering a powerful demonstration of a father’s sacrificial love for his son. Thus, the words, “I love you,” freely said between father and son in this film, carry powerful meaning thanks to the love put into action.
The fatherhood theme is doubly emphasized in the subplot of an ex-con John employs, who ends up helping John connect with drug dealers. Daniel James has a record as a narcotics distributer, but he would like to forget it. He now has a wife and son—his motivation to stay clean and out of trouble. Again, Daniel becomes a strong example of the difference that involved and loving fathers can make. He clearly would do anything to protect his young son, is open in expressing his love directly to the boy, and always thinks of his son’s health and future in every decision he makes. Above all, Daniel and John are actively engaged in trying to teach their sons to be men of character.
In a genre one would least expect it, marriage is another theme that is positively represented through Daniel and John, as they both have intact, apparently healthy marriages. John is on his second marriage, the first having ended in divorce, but he conducts his second marriage well. Importantly, John’s divorce is not passed over, but rather is memorably shown to have severe consequences in the life of his son. In an unusual move, the lower-income, ghetto-raised ex-con Daniel provides the best positive example of marriage in the movie as he proves to be a compassionate, loving provider for his wife—a husband who obviously desires his wife’s happiness, even more than his own.
Despite being admirable fathers and husbands, however, John and Daniel are sadly fallible when it comes to the toughest choices. Daniel falls the hardest, beginning with his willingness to do something he knows he should not for the money John offers to pay him. In Daniel’s defense, this moment involves a failure on John’s part to take the high road, as well, since John could have been honest with Daniel, rather than buying him off. Sadly, deception becomes a pattern for John as soon as he starts on the path to clear his son, and he shows little discernment in who he chooses to deceive, even when lying is unnecessary.
[SPOILER WARNING] Daniel and John share another, bigger misstep later in the film, when John asks Daniel to get a certain phone number that will help them save their families from the drug cartel and secure the big bust John needs to free Jason. This may sound like a small thing, but it actually just happens to involve shooting several men, conveniently killing off the other serious threat to Daniel and John’s families. Daniel knows he will need to shoot his way into the drug dealer’s hideout and willingly does so, placing himself and John on the wrong side of the law and ethics.
Sadly, Snitch does not see it that way, and instead portrays this violent retaliation (or “offensive strategy,” as one could couch it) positively as a necessary, courageous action that allows good to triumph over evil in the end. Too bad the good guys had to be a little evil to get the win.
Fickle ethics are not the only problem for Snitch. John and Daniel are also leaders in the criminal use of foul language throughout the film. These offenses include boatloads of profanities and obscenities. Our Lord’s name is misused no less than eleven times, often with “d--n” attached, while the s-word pops up at least a dozen times. The n-word and other obscenities like “a--”, “b--ch”, and “h---” also join the party.
Any moviegoer knows that Dwayne Johnson plus action equals violence. As expected, Snitch follows the usual math. Yet it should be noted that the violence in this film is surprisingly restrained for the genre. Several people are killed, but only one of these deaths (by shooting) is at all graphic, while the others are fast-paced and shown at a distance, factors which allow for very little evidence of blood or pain. But, as with any such approach to violence, desensitization to gun-violence is a likely possibility if viewers mindlessly follow the movie’s intention of making these deaths insignificant. The most graphic violence comes with a quick fist-fight, after which viewers see the victim with blood on his face.
The impression that Snitch leaves, both for good and for ill, is made particularly powerful through the skilled use of cinematography. Employing a hand-held, rough filming style and shadowed, realistic lighting with low contrast, the filmmakers match the telling of this story to the dark grittiness of the material itself. An unusually good and memorable soundtrack, not the pieced-together songs that pass for musical scores in many recent films, undergirds the movie’s action. And action there is aplenty, with enough story tension to drive an exciting sense of danger and suspense.
The acting is equally gripping, with each actor filling their roles with confidence. The standout performance of the film comes from Jon Bernthal. As Daniel James, Bernthal steals scenes and the movie from his more famous costars with his intense and nuanced performance. Always solid, Susan Sarandon adds depth to her turn as the DA with her authenticity, saving this character from becoming clichéd.
The one weakness in the cast is due more to a fault in casting, rather than acting. Dwayne Johnson as John is just too unbelievable, at times, since the role requires Johnson to be helpless and afraid. Johnson himself does an excellent job conveying those emotions and even the personality of an “everyman,” but it is still hard to buy his fears and supposed weakness when he looks about twice as big and twice as strong as all of the “bad guys”… put together.
Nevertheless, the impact of this story is still potent. Unexpectedly, Snitch goes deeper than its genre, calling for social justice, as well as penal and political reform. More importantly, the core of this film is the redemptive tale of a father’s sacrificial love for his son. Yet, the most lasting effect of Snitch is not an uplifting one, but is instead the sordid reality of the horrors of a world that those who are blessed to live in greater comfort rarely encounter.
The solution to evil in both “worlds” (that of the affluent and that of the inner city) is the same, and it is not offered in Snitch. Therein lies the film’s most harmful problem. The best Snitch can do is show two fallen people become more like the bad guys as they try to defeat them and condone that deterioration as a positive outcome.
How easy should this offender get off? Let the punishment fit the crime.