I have long been a fan of Guy Pearce, whose penchant for taking on small but meaningful roles has created one of the most diverse and surprising resumes for an actor of his caliber. Each week in 2020, I’ll be reviewing one of my Guy’s films, exploring his wild career.
“I answer to God. We all do.”
Released in 2008, Traitor already feels like a relic from a bygone socio-political era when spy films were filled with anti-Muslim (in particular, anti-Middle Eastern descent) coding to propel Bourne-like action sequences. “Get back at the ones who did this,” shows like 24 seemed to say. “You know what they look like.” Despite the general tokenism to create “plausible” deniability, the entertainment landscape post-2001 was suffused with this stuff, and I loved it anyway. Violence is fun to watch. You don’t think about the implications of it. Traitor does, though.
Don Cheadle stars as Samir, a devout Muslim arms dealer with a knack for bombs. He joins up with Omar (Saïd Taghmaoui, inhabiting the sort of role in which he’s too often cast), who helps organize a suicide bombing ring with big goals. Samir is on the FBI’ss radar, led by Agent Roy Clayton (Guy Pearce), who has a Ph.D. in Arab studies and hails from a line of Baptist preachers.
Beneath the spy operatics of Samir and Clayton’s deadly dance, Traitor tries to ask questions about the underpinnings of religious extremism. Is it inherent in the spiritual and social tenants of the holy books themselves? Is is something men design, together, with holy writ used to rationalize? The answers aren’t terribly complex or surprising, given that Jeffrey Nachmanoff’s screenplay is more thoughtful than similar terrorist spy stories of its time. Samir is very clearly undercover, and much of the third act plays out as spy stories do.
The spy stuff is pretty compelling. Shootouts, bombings, prison breaks. Double-crosses, deep-cover agents, Guy Pearce trying for a moderately Southern-fried accident that lowers his voice a few octaves. He’s not the villain by any stretch, but plays a driven antagonist well.
Still, Samir’s internal conflict between his ardent faith and his proximity and participation in violent acts is the most interesting and unique part of Traitor. In the end, he and Clayton have a great concluding scene where he explains to his former foe that the Quran states that to kill an innocent is to destroy all mankind; Clayton counters that it also says to save one is to save all mankind. This alone might have felt like American-splaining a Muslim’s faith to them, but a little button to their conversation is Samir correcting As-salāmu ʿalaykum. Traitor is about the way faith can be used and abused for any purpose.