I always knew the penalties for drug offenders were stiff, but I never realized how stringent they were until I saw “Snitch,” the new film starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as a father forced to take desperate measures when his son becomes involved in drug trafficking. Although the film’s plot is extremely complex, its overall message is crystal clear: Don’t get involved with drug dealers.
Johnson portrays John Matthews, the owner of a construction company, and he works very hard to keep his employees happy. John has just finished thanking some of his workers for a good week and wishing them a good weekend when he receives a frantic phone call from Sylvie Collins (Melina Kanakaredes), his ex-wife, who tells him that their son, Jason (Rafi Gavron), has been arrested for drug dealing, and he immediately joins her at police headquarters where Jason is being held.
The good news is that Jason is not a drug dealer and that he was set up by a friend, but the bad news is that what he did still is a violation of the law. Jason’s buddy (Who needs a friend like this?) had a package of drugs delivered to his house to hold for him. But when the feds caught Jason’s pal, he made a deal to have his sentence reduced by ratting on Jason.
Now the frightening thing about all of this is that Jason could face 10 years in prison for what he did, and the only way he can have his sentence reduced is by setting up one of his friends the same way he was set up. This seems like a simple solution to John and Sylvie, but Jason steadfastly refuses to get any of his friends in trouble and chooses to take his chances in prison.
In a desperate attempt to turn things around for his son, John meets with Joanne Keeghan (Susan Sarandon), a high-powered United States Attorney with aspirations of getting to Congress. She is the head of a strong anti-drug movement, and during her first meeting with John, she says there is absolutely nothing she can do to help in the reduction of Jason’s sentence unless he agrees to set up one of his friends.
Now this is where things really begin to become complicated, and so I’ll try to keep it as simple possible. After doing something rather stupid, John finally convinces Joanne to let him act on his son’s behalf and attempt to capture a high-level drug dealer. To this end he enlists the help of Daniel James (Jon Bernthal), one of his employees who has been involved in drug dealing but who now is trying to straighten his life around. At first he wants no part of John’s plan, but when his boss offers him a substantial amount of money, he decides to take the chance so that he can afford to move his wife and young son to a safer environment than the one where they are currently living.
The bottom line here is that John and Daniel ultimately become involved with some of the most dangerous drug dealers alive, and their attempt to aid Jason may very well cost them their own lives. However, John proves to be every bit as stubborn as his son, and he is perfectly willing to sacrifice himself to free Jason.
Although “Snitch” does contain some action sequences, it is more of a tense thriller than it is a typical Rock beat-em-up film. The idea of whether John can bring some of the most dangerous drug dealers in the world to justice creates some unbearable tension in film, and Johnson delivers a touching, sensitive, and emotionally charged performance as a father who feels guilty about having not been there for his son and who wants to make it up to him by keeping him out of the prison population. In the film’s production notes producer Matt Jackson (“End of Watch”) offered and interesting analysis of the film and of Jason.
“As much as there’s an action element, “Snitch” is about an all-American family confronted with an unfair situation that our justice system mandates. A kid makes a mistake, and his entire life is going to be ruined.
“Jason is a regular teenager. He reluctantly accepts a package for a friend without knowing what the consequences are. We take the position that everyone makes stupid mistakes sometimes and that the laws should reflect the severity of the offense. And in this case, he’s an innocent kid who screwed up. John, our hero, is an ordinary man in an extraordinary situation where he has to act to save his son.”
The drug laws are so strict that merely by accepting the package, Jason could be sentenced to from 10 to 30 years in federal prison. And at the end of the film, I was stunned to read the following on the screen: “The average sentence for a first time non-violent drug offender convicted under the federal mandatory minimum sentencing laws is now longer than the average sentence for rape, child molestation, bank robbery, and manslaughter.” Thus, the film’s message is clear: Stay the hell away from illegal drugs!
I gained a new respect for Johnson as I watched this film because he reveals a very compassionate side of himself in his portrayal of a father who is emotionally devastated by the thought of his son’s spending years in a federal prison. In the production notes, Johnson explained how this film is a departure from the movies he usually makes and what he liked about it.
“There’s definitely a more dramatic feel to this than any of my past work. Characters in the action genre are written in a certain way. The hero has to kick ass and get everybody else motivated. In a movie like this, there are no action heroes. John Matthews doesn’t say or do all the right things. He is in way over his head and there’s no clear sense that he’s going to get through this.
“There are a lot of elements to this story that I love. It’s well written with great characters and a true story at its heart. I also love the fact that it deals with the idea of personal responsibility and the notion of a father’s love for his son and how far a man will go to protect his family. I believe that I would do the exact same thing for my family. When it comes to my kids, I will lie, I will cheat, I’ll steal, I’ll kill to protect them.”
One of the nicest surprises in this film is the appearance of Oscar-winner Sarandon, who plays the character of the politically ambitious U.S. attorney to the hilt. An actress of Sarandon’s quality really gives the film credibility and elevates it to a status far above that of a mere action movie. Of course Sarandon is very outspoken on a number of issues, and drug laws are no exception. In fact, she even participated in a documentary about the subject, and in the production notes she pulled no punches about the current laws for drug offenders.
“As far as I can see, they just don’t work. They tend to penalize the people at the bottom and fill up our jails with first-time offenders — women, for instance, whose boyfriends had drugs delivered to their homes. You’re not stopping the problem because the guys at the top aren’t getting busted. It wastes an enormous amount of money, and it doesn’t stop the flow of drugs.”
In addition to being an entertaining film, “Snitch” (Give it a respectable seven.) definitely has an educational element to it. What Jason goes through for making a mistake is something you wouldn’t want to wish on anyone. The only problem I had with the film is that I thought the plot became a bit confusing in places, and I also didn’t care for how a number of scenes were shot in such subdued lighting that it was difficult to see what was happening. But the film’s educational value trumps these shortcomings.
And by the way, I also learned something about myself from watching this movie. I really admire Jason’s courage in refusing to save himself by setting up someone else, but I’m not so sure I would be equally brave in the same situation. Although it pains me to say it, if I were facing a federal prison sentence, I think I’d probably snitch on someone else to avoid it.