Rachel Weisz gives a powerful performance in Larysa Kondracki’s debut feature The Whistleblower. It’s a worthy film about East European sex trafficking—or what we used to call “white slavery”—in a “ripped from the headlines” (the studio’s own phrase) manner that has a strangely been-there-done-that air that keeps it from being the blistering expose it wants to be. It’s a good film with a strong central performance. The problem is that the film isn’t as strong as the performance.
Weisz plays real-life Nebraska cop Kathryn Bolkovac, who accepted a job as a peacekeeper for a U.N.-contracted security film in post-war Bosnia. Her original goal is to make the promised tax-free $100,000 in order to take her husband to court and attempt to win back custody of her child. But once she gets to Bosnia and starts seeing the injustices going on in the realm of sex-trafficking—injustices to which everyone seems to turn a blind eye—Bolkovac finds herself drawn into the situation, becoming determined to do something about it. The problem, of course, is that it’s in no one’s best interests—as far as the security company and the higher-ups are concerned—to do or say anything about this.
The catch to a film like this lies in the handling of its fact-based nature. Stray too far into the realm of dramatic license and you lose your credibility. Stick too close to the facts and you don’t have much in the way of persuasive drama. This—and a clunky first act that needed reorganizing—is where The Whistleblower isn’t entirely successful. It wants to be something like the paraoid political thrillers of the 1960s and ‘70s, but it’s tethered to the facts in a way that prevents it from being as satisfying as it might have been. The film has that grubby, gritty, ugly look that’s almost become a cliche of anything set in Eastern Europe—a cliche on the verge of seeming like parody—but it holds back from delivering the horrors it suggests. I rarely found it to be as visceral as it needed to be to completely work.
What makes the film shine is Weisz’s performance. Oh, don’t get me wrong, Vanessa Redgrave, David Strathairn and Monica Bellucci deliver the goods when called upon to do so (which perhaps isn’t often enough), but it’s Weisz who holds our interest. She’s the character who is inextricably drawn into the seedy underworld, and the one who tries to make a difference in her attempts to investigate these crimes and see the criminals prosecuted. She’s the one who sees the horrors first-hand—and she’s the one who is putting herself in harm’s way by doing so. Weisz is truly the film’s moral and dramatic center. She is the unwitting—almost unwilling—hero of a story she never expected to encounter, let alone become a part of.
It’s in the nature of stories like The Whistleblower to have a central character who doesn’t have the power to make the difference. These characters—in life as in fiction—are invariably ill-suited to the task and have it forced on them. Weisz’s Bolkovac is no different. But Weisz’s peformance is. She is quite simply rivetting.
The film itself wants to outrage you, and it may well succeed in doing so—if only by the revelation that the company in question is still being used by the U.S. in similar capacities elsewhere in the world. Except for Weisz’s performance, however, I felt slightly distanced from it all. Maybe I’ve just seen so many crusading films that I’ve become slightly numb to them. In any case, the film is a worthwhile one that moves into the realm of a must-see thanks to Weisz. Rated R for disturbing violent content, including a brutal sexual assault, graphic nudity and language.