The modern world is pulling at its own stitches -- religious differences, political conflicts, and crisscrossing loyalties. So it's an appropriate time for a movie like "Traitor," a brilliantly acted and morally murky tale that was written (weirdly enough) by Steve Martin, but which is also held back by its twisty narrative and a narrative that sounds better in theory than in practice.
Sudanese Samir Horn (Cheadle) was born in Sudan, but after his father was killed in a terrorist attack he was brought to the United States and eventually became a part of the army -- a specialist who infiltrates terrorist organizations. But it seems his loyalties are no longer to the US army -- he's become entangled in a group of terrorists and imprisoned in Yemen. And, of course, his special skills and knowledge come in quite handy when it comes to terrorist plots.
But something is not quite right in this equation. A pair of FBI agents, Roy Clayton (Guy Pearce) and Max Archer (Neal McDonough), are sent after Samir.... but soon discover that his loyalties are not so easily identified. Just who is he a traitor to? At the same time, a plot is being put into effect that would kill countless people on Thanksgiving Day, and Samir seems to be involved...
"Traitor" is pretty clearly a movie meant to make you very, very uncomfortable, especially since it does some heavy delving into Muslim beliefs, divisions of loyalty, and the corruptions of text and belief that drive fanatical extremists to kill others. It gets too slanted at times -- the Muslim agent is portrayed as far more devout in his faith than the Christian one -- but it's a powerful piece of work, and a sympathetic look at the people torn between their personal beliefs and outside forces.
Director Jeffrey Nachmanoff handles this in a more intelligent manner than your average action thriller, allowing the plot to seep and unfold gradually, and throwing new kinks into the storyline along the way. The violence is genuinely harrowing, and the script is pretty solid. The problem is that the complexity itself turns into confusing knots, and the ending falls rather flat compared to the tense, sleek movie that precedes it. I was left thinking, "... that's it? That's what happens?"
Cheadle is, quite simply, one of Hollywood's most underrated actors -- and he gives a quietly compelling, intensely powerful performance as Samir, able to convey all the division and confusion that his character feels. Pearce is a good if slightly less nuanced counterpart, far more conventional in his thoughts and approaches, but who learns a certain appreciation for Cheadle's character and the knowledge that the truth is not simple or straightforward. Assuming you can find "the truth" at all, rather than someone's personal approach.
"Traitor" leaves you feeling confused but exhilarated, and tackles the near-impossible questions of modern Islam and some of its fanatical followers. An intelligent movie, if a flawed one.