Whistleblower Tackles Human Trafficking
- Christian Hamaker Contributing Film and Culture Writer
- 2011 5 Aug
Release Date: August 5, 2011 (limited)
Rating: R (for disturbing violent content, including a brutal sexual assault, graphic nudity and language)
Run Time: 118 min.
Director: Larysa Kondracki
Actors: Rachel Weisz, Monica Belluci, Vanessa Redgrave, David Strathairn, Nikolaj Lie Kaas
Human trafficking is one of today’s most compelling moral issues. It cuts across religious and political boundaries, uniting people in efforts to free women and children from modern-day slavery.
Such an important subject calls for a stirring movie—a film that not only highlights the issue for the masses but tells its story through vivid characterizations by illuminating the complexities faced among those trying to do good unto others.
The subject has been tackled in several films of late, including Trade (2007) and Taken (2009). Trade, starring Kevin Kline, was an earnest film with a few powerful scenes but one that suffered from subplots and an uneven tone. Taken, starring Liam Neeson, showed some behind-the-scenes squalor of girls kidnapped and forced into the sex trade, but the film was more of a straight-ahead revenge thriller than probing moral tale.
The Whistleblower, a new film about sex trafficking starring Rachel Weisz (The Lovely Bones), has its own host of problems. The film is almost unremittingly grim, which may seem appropriate for such a horrifying subject, but the effect on the viewer is that of being struck repeatedly with a sledgehammer. Sex trafficking is bad. Really bad! Did you get that, or do you need to watch a few more scenes of physical and sexual brutality? Don’t worry: The Whistleblower has those aplenty. It takes brutality into the realm of gratuitousness, all in the name of showing the horrors of the issue it’s addressing.
Weisz plays Kathy, an American police officer with a personal life that’s a mess. She’s divorced and wants to see more of her daughter. But more than that, she needs money, so she signs up for a job opportunity offering up to $100,000 for six months’ work as a U.N. peacekeeper in post-war Bosnia. Her mission, says one of her co-workers, is to institute the rule of law “where lawlessness has run rampant.”
Kathy has to play by the rules instituted by men. Socially, that means hanging out at the bar, drinking, and hooking up. Although she has two marriages behind her, she barely hesitates before sleeping with a married man. But no sooner does the film introduce her new relationship than it drops it to focus on the physical and sexual abuse suffered by Bosnian women. The film’s cursory treatment of Kathy’s personal life in Bosnia is one of its problems. Why introduce a relationship that isn’t explored in any depth? Were the filmmakers interested in providing a little sex (“romance” wouldn’t really fit what we see) to hold the interest of audience members not interested in the film’s focus on trafficking? The very fact that the question occurs is evidence of how poorly integrated into the story Kathy’s love life is.
Kathy’s tough demeanor leads to the first post-war domestic violence conviction in the country, raising Kathy’s profile and leading to a promotion that keeps her in the country. Torn by a desire to return to her daughter in the United States or push ahead with the progress she’s making overseas, Kathy chooses the latter and encounters ever increasing resistance as she gets closer to the source of corruption and the forces that exploit women overseas. When those closest to her turn out to be less than friendly toward her pursuit, Kathy is left to wonder who she can trust. The revelation of who is, and isn’t, Kathy’s enemy won’t come as too much of a shock: Nearly everyone is suspect, and nearly everyone turns out to be complicit in the goings on. It’s Kathy against a system comprised mainly of lecherous American men.
How might a film about such a degrading subject have been better? Some nuance would have helped. Not that the subject matter is debatable; no one would defend trafficking. But while the topic is black and white, the characters and storyline need not be. For too long, the film is about one woman in a just cause against the cadre of shady, or outright wicked, men around her. Kathy may be somewhat compromised by her marital and parental choices, but the film is so intent on showing her as a hero that it pits her against numerous vile, duplicitous villains. Nearly every man she meets—and some women as well—is treacherous. The screenwriters give Kathy a romantic interest, but that character and relationship are so underdeveloped as to be laughable.
The film concludes by making a tenuous connection between the American contractors shown working in Bosnia and those currently working in Iraq and Afghanistan. By then, however, the film’s power to persuade has long been diminished. Too heavy-handed, The Whistleblower would rather rub our faces in the details of trafficking than do the heavy lifting required for good drama. This important subject matter still awaits a film that conveys its relevance with more effective storytelling and characterizations.
- Language/Profanity: Lord’s name taken in vain; high number of “f”-words; “d-mn”; “s-it”; “what the hell”’ “a-s”; “b-tch.”
- Alcohol/Smoking/Drugs: Scenes of drinking at a bar.
- Sex/Nudity: Illustrations of girls with “pasties” on a pinball machine; Kathy goes home with a man and they undress each other and, through a blurry image, have sex; explicit pictures of nude, abused women.
- Violence/Crime: An abused wife shows a wound inflicted by her husband; a car accident; enslaved girls are forced to watch one of their own as she’s sexually assaulted; a shot to the head at point-blank range.
- Marriage: Kathy’s ex-husband says she’s married to her job, and that the divorce judge saw it that way, too; Kathy says she’s been married twice, even as she gets involved with a married man.
- Religion: The Bosnian conflict pits Christians against Muslims; a character says an abused woman is “a Muslim and deserved it”; Kathy says to a man, “If I slept with you, I’m going straight to hell,” and the man replies, “You are. Let’s get drunk.”
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