It says a lot about the penetration of mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related crimes into public consciousness that the folks who cut the trailer for Dwayne Johnson’s new action movie, Snitch, use scenes where characters talk about sentencing guidelines twice in the first minute:
Were this a different movie, I’d take a look at the cliche cartel villains (though I do love me some Benjamin Bratt) and the chase sequences, and I’d probably write it off. But the decision to portray mandatory minimums as both cruel in and of themselves—which,in addition to being applied in racially disparate ways, they are—and to demonstrate the ways in which they can be used to push people in vulnerable circumstances into becoming confidential informants, is astute, and different. Both the New York Times and the New Yorker published blockbuster pieces on the use and misuse of confidential informants earlier this year. The former, by Ted Conover, followed the experiences of one such informant, Alex White, while the latter, by Sarah Stillman, took a more systematic approach. But they both make the point the drug war in particular is increasingly reliant on a system that puts people who have committed small crimes in great danger for very chancy results.
Most of our crime movies operate by showing us the flaws in the law-enforcement system and using the victories and examples of noble exceptions to those flaws to reaffirm our faith in the police and in the courts to keep us safe, combat evil, and act with mercy. Snitch could be that rare crime film that works in a different direction, arguing that systems meant to produce consistency in inconsistent circumstances inject further instability into our government’s efforts to control the flow of narcotics. Even if it’s not willing to indict the war on drugs—and it’s true that there are cartels, and they can be brutally violent—or the law enforcement system as a whole, I’m glad to see movies like Snitch that are more closely rooted in the ambiguities and real impact of our criminal justice system even if they devolve into by-the-numbers shoot-‘em-ups. There’s drama to be drawn from the experiences of people whose lives are ruined by an inflexible system, and by the bad deals that prosecutors offer up to them, and stories worth telling about those failures. The setups to our action movies matter, even if a lot of them end the same way.