A certain tendency of the American cinema is to confuse dramatic seriousness with moral seriousness. The former, at its most superficial, is merely a useful pretense: One finds it when a shallow film adopts the tenor of high tragedy so as to hide the fact that, beneath some sober veneer, it has nothing much to say. Those films for which “gravity” simply means a kind of exaggerated dourness (cue simplistic affectations like grayscale photography and plaintive strings) are often the least likely to engage with questions of morality with any degree of sophistication, preferring instead to strain only for the appearance of absolute solemnity. What’s most obnoxious about this hackneyed routine is the suggestion, implicit in the approach, that issues of real-world significance are being handily broached and perhaps even resolved in some fashion, despite such films typically offering about as much information and insight as a well-maintained Wikipedia page (cf. Argo and its reductive dramatization of the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979, or Arbitrage and its idiotic conception of modern corporate corruption).
Perhaps the appeal of such films is rooted in the illusion of social relevance they strain to establish, as though the kernel of truth located deep within their fiction justifies our ongoing cultural ignorance of how the world actually operates. It’s easier to passively accept the left-leaning platitudes of, say, Blood Diamond than it is to actively investigate the impact of the Kimberley Process on the Angolan economy or the working conditions in Chiadzwa’s Marange diamond fields, which is probably why issue films are lauded for some vague notion of “raising awareness” rather than contributing in a meaningful way to the discourse surrounding those issues. There’s more than a hint of exploitation in this sort of bleeding-heart issue-mongering, particularly when complicated subjects are reduced by filmmaking convention to nothing more than empty frameworks on which tension and drama are designed to slackly hang. Snitch is the latest in a long line of films whose sole purpose is to flatten a major social problem into a pulp ideal for self-serious spectacle, and though it’s hardly the most egregious example of the trend, its sheer mendacity in the face of hard truths makes it among the most galling.
In this case, the target of investigation is America’s war on drugs, and more specifically the toll that war has taken and continues to take on the lives of the law-abiding citizens the legislation is intended to protect. This, it probably goes without saying, is both a perfectly serious and seriously complicated issue to tackle in a Hollywood film, which even last year’s acclaimed documentary The House I Live In struggled to parse without recourse to mild didacticism and an over-simplification of the history; that a middling thriller should aspire to such lofty political heights is as commendable as it is almost certainly doomed.
Snitch’s strategy for ingratiating its audience into the social dimension of the story necessitates a flimsy narrative setup, taking shortcuts for dramatic expediency: As the film opens, we find good-hearted young suburbanite Jason (Rafi Gavron) casually rejecting a friend’s offer to house a stash of MDMA for a weekend, but it isn’t long before the drugs exchange hands anyway and Jason, much to his surprise, if not ours, is left holding the proverbial bag when the DEA makes its bust. Jason is convicted under the minimum mandatory sentencing laws to 10 years in state prison for possession with intent to distribute, and, without any connection to the world of dealers besides the friend who gave him up, he’s left without even the ability to make a deal to reduce his sentence.
That Jason is resolutely innocent of any crime—that it’s obvious to the audience that he’s not only legally innocent, but morally innocent too—makes the injustice of the mandatory sentencing laws and the stupidity of the system practically inarguable. The cops and lawyers involved in the case, equally frustrated by the circumstances, but resigned to their unflagging permanence, simply shrug the whole thing off, deferring to the institutions under whose aegis they are forced to operate. This is a reasonable proposal with a basis in fact, as the war on drugs doles out punishments grossly disproportionate to the crimes committed, but Snitch articulates this idea so crudely that it effectively misses its own point: It’s so concerned with a black-and-white conception of justice and innocence that the real victims of this Draconian legislation—kids who are actually guilty of dealing, but who needn’t be sentenced so severely—are overlooked entirely, contributing to the very same misconceptions about the war on drugs that it purports to dispel. It’s obvious, from a screenwriting perspective, why Jason is required to be legitimately innocent; it’s a matter of stacking the moral deck in order to guarantee audience sympathy. But given the reality of the situation, it’s totally disingenuous. Were it clear that the drugs were Jason’s and that he had intended to deal them himself, his 10-year sentence would be no less unjust or unfair. But Snitch doesn’t have the confidence to introduce even a modicum of moral ambiguity or complexity.
Soon enough, of course, Snitch turns its attention to the action-lite heroics of Jason’s father, John (Dwayne Johnson), whose quest to exonerate his son takes him deep into the world of drug dealing and distribution and whose efforts, unsurprisingly, are uniformly successful. There’s a straightforward element of fantasy wish-fulfillment to this premise that isn’t without interest, especially in the sense that an average middle-class citizen can stand up to the system and literally fight for a freedom his own government won’t allow. But again, Snitch makes a mess of the execution by misunderstanding the promise of the concept: Rather than transforming the Rock’s almost comically rapid rise to the top of the drug empire into some kind of blockbuster spectacle to be enjoyed vicariously, Snitch becomes a fairly tiresome drama gesturing limply toward tension and credibility. We’re supposed to forget that the Rock has the physique of a professional athlete and regard him as some blue-collar Walter White taking on drug kingpins by his lonesome, which would be an amusing conceit if it weren’t drained of anything like fun and entertainment. Snitch, like so many of its contemporaries, relies on that same pretense of dramatic seriousness, making the mistake of assuming that moral seriousness will naturally follow. But it gets so much about the war on drugs wrong, fundamentally miscomprehending the source of the conflict and its many implications, that its laborious attempts to deal directly with the issue as though it has the answers we need come off as little more than noxious.