DRUG WAR CHRONICLE: Snitch is a Hollywood action thriller with a message, and it’s a message that is so far playing well with audiences and theaters across the land. The $15 million crime and justice pic starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Susan Sarandon has already done more than $32 million in gross box office receipts, and its being held over for a fourth week in select theaters around the country.
Based on a 1999 PBS Frontline documentary of the same name, Snitch tells the story of trucking company owner John Matthews (Johnson), whose estranged son is set up by a friend in trouble with the law. The son accepts delivery of a package of Ecstasy, and is then raided and arrested by the DEA. Matthews’ hired attorney explains to the stunned parents that their son is looking at a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence, and the only way out is to snitch on somebody else.
The son bravely refuses to rat out his friends and is kept behind bars, where he is brutalized, but Matthews feels it is nobler to save his son and decides to intercede on his behalf. Using his business connections, he wrangles a meeting with hard-hearted, politically-driven US Attorney Joanne Keeghan (Sarandon) and offers to set up dope dealers himself if that can get his son out of trouble.
From there, it’s typical action thriller material, with dangerous, desperate dope dealers (who already have two strikes and aren’t about to go down for a third), tormented ex-cons trying to go straight, duplicitious (but kind hearted) DEA agents, and bloodthirsty Mexican cartels. There is danger, suspense, shoot ’em ups, and car chases before the movie resolves with junior getting out of jail and the family disappearing into the witness protection program.
But running throughout the nearly two-hour movie are the twin themes of snitching and mandatory minimum sentencing. Snitch lays bare the workings of the drug war’s informing imperative, scratching at the surface of the moral contradictions involved, and subtly brings to life the mindless cruelty of imposing lengthy mandatory minimums on nonviolent drug offenders, but it manages to do so in the middle of a mainstream cinematic entertainment vehicle.
That’s just what director Ric Roman Waugh wanted, he told Drug War Chronicle in a phone interview Wednesday from Austin, where he is attending the SXSW festival. Once merely a music showcase, SXSW is now a playland for all sorts of artistic endeavors, including Hollywood action films with a message.
“The move is really a first testament to how far you go to protect your kids,” said Waugh. “In the documentary, he didn’t just talk the talk, he walked the walk. He got the US Attorney to sign off and reduce his kid’s sentence for a bigger bust. That really happened, and we wanted to open that up.”
When he was offered the chance to rewrite the script for the movie, he jumped at the offer, he said.
“They sent me the original script and the Frontline documentary, and it was that core message that really jumped out, and we turned that into a first-person point of view movie,” the stuntman turned director said. “The snitching and the mandatory minimums were integral to what we wanted to talk about. The message of the movie is that you can be for or against the war on drugs, but watch what this father went through and then think about these controversial mandatory minimums. When you walk out of the theater and realize nonviolent drug offenders are doing longer sentences than rapists and people who committed manslaughter, that’s something to think about.”
Snitch was screened last week at an event hosted by Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) in Washington, DC, but the film has been generating buzz among the broader public as well.
“The response has been tremendous,” Waugh said. “There is a core audience that will go see a movie with a message, but that’s a relatively small audience. But when you can put that message in the body of bigger action thriller and you’re not hitting them over the head with it but just allowing them to experience the controversies, they’re coming out and talking about it. They’re talking about the world of informants, the liar’s club, if you will, and what you would do if your life or the life of your child was on the line. It’s created a lot of dialog, and that’s what we intended.
Unlike documentaries, which typically play to art house audiences and die quiet, largely unlamented deaths, this Hollywood treatment of the issues has demonstrated some staying power.
“It’s been playing for three weeks and will continue for quite awhile,” said Waugh. “We’ve exceeded expectations for movies this size, lots of theaters are keeping us over for the fourth week, and we’re even adding a few screens. People are able to relate to this in their own lives. What would happen if their kids were in harm’s way? The movie tries to look these draconian laws and the system as a whole and get people to ask where they stand on them. We’re only halfway there, and it’s already a success. That’s a real testament that you can do a message movie, you can do a commercial action thriller that’s about something.”
As noted above, even though Snitch opened on February 22, it’s still being held over in theaters across the land. If you have an interest in drug war issues or if you get off on action flicks in general or flicks starring The Rock in particular, or better yet, if you have a friend or family member who’s gaga for The Rock or a sucker for car chases, but has displayed no particular interest in or awareness of issues like snitching or mandatory minimums, it’s time to have a movie date while Snitch is still on the big screen.