I swear this film festival is trying to break me.
The Whistleblower is tough viewing. Know that up front. It’s not particularly essential viewing, though the atrocity it is trying to inform us about is essential information. Dramatizing true events like this is a way to let more people know that there is a problem with human trafficking in this world, but this isn’t light entertainment where the good guys win and the bad guys get their just desserts. You will walk out of the theatre absolutely drained.
Rachel Weisz ably stars as Kathryn Bolkovac, a U.S. police officer who joined a privatized international police force as a U.N. agent and served in Bosnia trying to help the country get back on its feet after the end of their Civil War in the mid-1990s. Though essentially part of the usual old boy’s club, Bolkovac fits in well enough and she does her job even better. Working with a local police officer, she successfully prosecutes the first-ever domestic abuse case to be heard in Bosnian courts–in defense of a Muslim woman, no less. This gets her the notice of the higher-ups, and Kathryn is promoted to being in charge of gender-related crimes in the region.
That’s how two foreign girls who have escaped from sex slavers cross Kathryn’s path. Concerned for their well-being and for the other girls at the seedy brothel where they ‘work,’ Kathryn runs a raid on the bar. When the victimized girls don’t make it to the women’s shelter after the raid, Kathryn starts to suspect there is more going on than she realized. Her detecting leads her to discover that members of all manner of international and local law enforcement aren’t just frequenting these kinds of bars, but many of them are taking bribes to look the other way and even aiding in the trafficking. Of course, when word starts getting around that Kathryn is going to bust her own and a worldwide scandal could destroy lucrative defense contracts, the bad guys try to squeeze her out.
The Whistleblower is a Canadian production, directed by Larysa Kondracki, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Eilis Kirwan. It is based on a true story, and so it is on the side of a righteous cause. Roping in a cast that is as accomplished and as globe-trotting as its characters, including Monica Belllucci, Benedict Cumberbatch, David Strathairne, and Vanessa Redgrave, The Whistleblower represents a lot of good work by a lot of good people. Rachel Weisz is particularly impressive as the tough-minded Bolkovac. Hers is a smart performance, and she is careful not to overlty telegraph her emotional shifts, staying far away from caricature. As usual, Weisz is particularly winning in the more natural scenes. She has a way of making basic conversation and small talk affectless.
As a director, Kondracki does well with her first feature, sticking to the essentials. The Whistleblower is, for most intents and purposes, a procedural, and the final product is solid, if lacking in any distinctive style or verve. Kondracki is cautious not to overdramatize the situation. In particular, she doesn’t sensationalize or render the terrible crimes done against these girls in any way that is exploitative. Don’t confuse that for a lack of harshness, though. The atrocities depicted in The Whistleblower are stomach churning, and if there is going to be a movie that shows us how horrific this kind of thing really is, then this is the way to do it.
Unfortunately, even with some tried-and-true final reel machinations and some forced speechifying from Redgrave, the reality of this story is that not much is really resolved, and Kathryn Bolkovac most likely barely made a dent in the criminal organization and systemic failures that allow human trafficking to continue. This means The Whistleblower fails to satisfy the viewer’s expectations for narrative closure, which may cause many to wonder why they spent nearly two hours gritting their teeth through this dark material. What was all this suffering for? I think a better movie could answer that question, and ultimately, it’s where The Whistleblower falls short.
The Whistleblower plays the Portland International Film Festival on 2/18, 2/20, and 2/21. Director Larysa Kondracki will be attending the screenings on the 18th and the 20th.