Andrea Di Stefano's crime thriller evokes too many better films without adding anything new or unique to an already overcrowded canon.
- * Fans of spartan storytelling will appreciate director Andrea Di Stefano's urgent pacing and minimalistic exposition.
- * This film is not the biopic of chart-topping Canadian rapper Snow that I'd hoped for.
- * A script cowritten by director Di Stefano rushes through details too quickly for them to mean anything for the audience.
Sometimes it’s better to drop audiences into the middle of events already in progress and let them catch up, but The Informer isn’t one of them. The story of an undercover cop fighting for his life and his family’s safety as the head of a crime family and the FBI attempt to manipulate him, Andrea Di Stefano’s thriller mercilessly reduces the details of its characters’ lives to exactly what the audience needs to know, and nothing more. But if that spartan approach breathlessly meets the needs of director and cowriter Di Stefano’s impatient, white-knuckle pacing, it does a disservice to the characters whose lives we’re meant to care about and invest in. That said, Joel Kinnaman deftly leads a cast of heavy hitters that includes Rosamund Pike, Clive Owen and Ana de Armas, even in what quickly becomes an overly aggressive game of cat and mouse that conjures the spectre of similar, better films like The Departed without sufficiently capitalizing on the overlapping elements that made them work.
Kinnaman (Suicide Squad) plays Pete Koslow, a former soldier and reformed criminal who went undercover for the FBI to investigate the Polish Mob in New York. After quietly brokering a deal that would get his criminal colleagues arrested and his own record wiped clean, Koslow watches his best laid plans explode when another undercover officer inadvertently jeopardizes the operation and gets himself killed. Ryszard Klimek (Eugene Lipinski), the mobster Koslow works for, demands that he take the blame for the murder to alleviate attention from the cops, and makes a menacing promise that his wife Sofia (de Armas) will receive “protection” while he’s in jail. Meanwhile, Koslow’s FBI liaison Erica Wilcox (Pike) yields to her supervisor Montgomery’s (Owen) demands for a conviction at all costs and refuses to take them into protective custody, expecting he’ll either complete his investigation or be killed - either way providing them with criminal cases to pin on the mob.
Sent back to the prison where he served several years prior, Koslow uses mob contacts to set up deals while ferreting information to the FBI. But his second stint proves more difficult than the first, especially after an abusive guard decides to focus his efforts on making the convict’s life as unpleasant as possible. But when NYC cop Ed Grens (Common) discovers several inconsistencies while looking at the murder case against Koslow, Montgomery decides to burn the informer altogether, not only exposing him to risk, but his family on the outside. With time slipping away, Koslow must find a way to escape the prison and protect his wife and daughter before either the FBI captures him, or the mob retaliates.
Certainly the gold standard for this type of story (in English, anyway) is The Departed, which both navigated the machinery of two complex organizations, the mob and the police, and placed the characters in each (and both) of them under an empathetic and sometimes incisive microscope. It’s possible that Kinnaman simply isn’t as instantly sympathetic an actor as DiCaprio, but more likely, The Informer works less well because Di Stefano cuts its exposition and character development to the bone to propel the audiences through its twists and turns at maximum speed rather than for maximum effect. Koslow’s background isn’t complicated, but understanding even a little bit more about him - exploring some of the connective tissue between his stint as a special forces officer, his prison stint for manslaughter, and his current work as an undercover investigator - would amplify the tension, give us a sense of how he could handle these increasing complications, and must make us care more.
The result of that minimalism is that most of the other characters become ciphers for a point of view or a plot point. Staszek, the mob lieutenant whose murder of the cop sets Koslow’s prison odyssey into motion, comes from a long line of cinematic (and probably real-life) nepotism beneficiaries, a la Vincent Cassel in Eastern Promises; we never learn if there’s more to him than entitlement and cruelty. Similarly, Owen’s Montgomery is a section chief who only sees the bottom line, and doesn’t care what it costs until it starts to cost him something personally; and Common’s police detective falls firmly into the same type (albeit to far inferior effect) as Tommy Lee Jones’ Sam Gerard in The Fugitive, a “dogged investigator determined to expose the truth.” Only Pike’s Erica Wilcox shows some small degrees of complexity, but that’s also because if there was truly no one that Koslow could count on, neither he nor his wife would have even a chance of survival.
At just under two hours, the movie covers an enormous span of time - or does it? Di Stefano, an actor who played a priest in Life of Pi, films every scene with the same urgency that it’s hard to know when one sequence of events ends and the next one begins. If Koslow’s investigation was months in the making before the murder, how long does it take before he goes into jail, including enough of a build-up to allow him to thoroughly say his goodbyes and plan a bunch of stuff involving a drone and secret recordings? And then, how long is he in jail before his cover is threatened? Deadlines are mentioned in passing but if someone insisted that everything in this film occurred within a week or less, that wouldn’t surprise me, even if I don’t think I’d believe it logically.
Again, Kinnaman is serviceable as Koslow, but he frequently seems more like a poseable action figure than a leading man. Owen can (and does) sleepwalk through a role like this, while Pike desperately tries to give her character something to do, and de Armas is saddled with an unfortunate haircut that overshadows what I am sure was another interesting performance. But as a whole, you’d be better off watching literally any of the movies mentioned above than this one if you’re intrigued by the subject matter. The unfortunate bottom line is that there are so many movies like this already that if you’re going to do one, then it needs to be original, or in lieu of that, at least exceptional. The Informer is just painfully average.
The Informer will be available on VOD on November 6th, 2020.
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