I still don’t quite know what to make of “Traitors.” I know I like it. That’s one of the few facts in this instance. It’s not a brain scrambler kind of movie, like “Snowpiercer” really wanted to be. It’s plain as day and almost falls on its face because of it. There are no bad guy antics or saturated form. Instead, director Sean Gullette applies a gentle amount of Bresson and allows the film room to breathe, even when he employs close ups that almost choke the image.
It doesn’t hurt to have a pair of eyes that can tell the whole story. Chaimae Ben Acha as Malika, our main character, does more with a look than any well-written line of dialogue could accomplish. She reminded me a lot of Anna Karina during her defining years: always looking like she has a hunch about something yet to be revealed.
She has reason to be. She did agree to be a ‘one-time’ drug mule in order to raise money to keep her family in their home and to get her band, The Traitors, a studio session. It’s one of the few genre clichés of the film but it wears that badge with pride.
The aim for simplicity in genre films is often misguided and therefore misjudged in hindsight. Yes, in most genre fare, it is used as cheap paint to coat the absence of intelligence. But “Traitors,” in a distant connection with something like “Pickpocket,” is able to get out of its own way and allow itself to erase the façade of genre.
Doing so gives the film its own ambient rhythm. The film glides from moment to moment, building tension without us realizing it until the correct scene reveals that tension. It’s a little bastard of a film but it’s consistent. You sense Gullette had the opportunity to turn up the heat but declined out of persistence.
For example, the interaction between Malika and Amal (Soufia Issam)– a seasoned drug runner who is the accompaniment for the drive – has every sign of falling ass first into melodrama if it weren’t for their sparse interplay. Then you realize they are talking like two people who have never seen each other who’ve been assigned a job that can land them in jail forever. It’s stupid simple but you don’t even notice it, and when you do you wanna slap your forehead.
One of the film’s clichés that bothered me was its use of caricatures as McGuffins to keep the story rolling. I.e., Malika’s father is a gambling addict while her good-hearted mother keeps the family from falling apart, the drug gang are like most you’ve seen, etc. But! The charisma of the cast makes it work. Amal is really the only other character worth taking stock in.
A seasoned mule, Amal is devoid of freedom. She only knows ‘the life’ and knows nothing much will change. She’s resigned to her fate, even as she carries her child in the womb. Tasked with keeping an eye on Malika and making sure the job is completed, Amal does the unprofessional thing and opens up to Malika in small spurts about her life–how she got to where she is and where she dreams of going.
You can sense where this is going. Malika decides she is going to intervene. Amal represents the despair on the streets of Tangier to which Malika has little resources, except her music, to fight. Now, being face to face and the music turned off, Malika decides to affect some sort of change, to bring some sort of light to the rat hole.
The obvious turn in the story, once again, isn’t played as a cover, but for that little bit of emotional tinge a film which walks the tightrope has to have. What is said is only what is necessary and the level of emotion is at the correct level. At a certain point the guns and the drugs and the tension have to be offset with a natural feeling to the story – almost like an embrace. Gullette’s screenplay allows that feel, but it doesn’t get personal. Both women know there eventually will be a disconnection in their paths – their lives have to part for good or ill.
The music, and lack thereof in the middle act, acts as the connection or disconnection for Malika and definitely for Amal. Malika’s strength and will comes from the rock’n’roll blasting through her headphones, enabling her to get lost from life in what is basically the slums of Tangier. The disconnection comes on the road. Malika cannot escape into her music when the circumstance becomes tense, forcing her to confront its reality.
If there is one major fault with “Traitors,” it is the ending. A small twist occurs, allegiances convulse, yet it feels forced – almost too wrapped up compared with the floating feel of the first 4/5ths of the film. It’s too concrete when you expect an open-ended conclusion.
Other than that, I have no real problem with the movie. It goes against expectation yet doesn’t resort to trickery or gimmickry to get ahead. If you see it, don’t expect anything. Just let the film be what it is and go where it goes. That’s where its aura lies.
DIRECTOR: Sean Gullette SCREENWRITER: Sean Gullette CAST: Chaimae Ben Acha, Soufia Issam, Mourade Zeguendi, Driss Roukhe