Title: The Whistleblower
Director: Larysa Kondracki
Starring: Rachel Weisz, David Strathairn, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Anna Anissimova, Roxana Condurache, Monica Bellucci, Vanessa Redgrave
A powerhouse drama set against the backdrop of a very complicated and muddied story, The Whistleblower is one of those dramas that induce wearied sighs, furrowed brows and worried thoughts about the default state of human nature. Inspired by actual events, it’s both a crusading cop investigatory thriller and a sort of surrogate, gender-politic struggle-for-equality tale loosely in the vein of North Country.
The story centers around Kathy Bolkovac (Rachel Weisz), a tough and exceedingly competent Nebraskan police officer who — facing a divorce, denied a job transfer and wanting to scrape together enough money to move and still be close to her daughter — takes a part-time assignment working as a United Nations peacekeeper in post-war Bosnia, where ethnic strife has left a largely destitute population distrustful of both one another and outsiders. Kathy’s expectations of helping to rebuild a devastated country and mostly assist in procedural matters are upturned when she uncovers what she believes to be a forced prostitution ring operated at least partially for the benefit of a corrupt local police office. While she labors to first find and then flip a frightened girl she can use as a corroborating witness, Kathy takes her concerns to her new mentor and confidant, Madeleine Rees (Vanessa Redgrave), who eventually loops in a friend and Internal Affairs investigator, Peter Ward (David Strathairn). As Kathy comes by more evidence, though, the layers of complicity and corruption disturbingly seem to widen even further, including UN contractors and throwing into doubt who at all she is able to trust.
The script, co-written by director Larysa Kondracki and Eilis Kirwan, offers up some squarely righteous and on-the-nose dialogue (sample exchange: “We have a system that works here.” “Oh really? For who?!”) plus a fairly pat ending, propped up by multiple explanatory codas both general and specific. But The Whistleblower ably summons the distrust that victims of crime (especially of a sexual nature) and war have towards a system that turns a blind eye to their suffering and pain. The film doesn’t come by this lightly, with overwritten monologues of angsty exposition. Instead, it shows, and not just tells; there’s an intense sexual assault scene in which the violence is inflicted merely for the point of showing a group of women what happens when someone cooperates with authorities. Handheld camerawork further communicates the palpable anxiety and despair of this and other scenes.
A small bit of familial material with Kathy — her calling home to check in on her daughter — is perfunctory, and The Whistleblower is better once it sheds its obligations to this thread, no matter how rooted in real-life events it might be. The story is better served by pivoting away from “mere” maternal anger (i.e., the patronizing notion that Kathy is so doggedly invested in the case and the lives of these young girls because she’s separated from her own daughter), and tapping into a deeper, more fundamental rage over this deplorable sex ring, and entire idea of human trafficking. That sense of indignation, along with a well-seeded sense of who-can-she-trust paranoia, help give The Whistleblower both a nice emotional pull and overall sense of engagement and investment.
Channeling all that anger is Weisz, of course, who packages it alongside a determination, unshowy intellect and heartrending vulnerability. In this foreign land, far away from home, Kathy is a character that exists independent of her sexuality, even as she experiences womanly wants and needs, and her gender informs the manner in which others interact with her, and accept her investigation. It’s a strong central role, yes — the sort upon which awards nominations are built, definitely — but neophyte director Kondracki also crafts a grim and gripping movie that asks tough questions about the boundaries and responsibilities of occupying, ostensible do-gooders, and one all the more stomach-churning for the fact that it’s based on a true story.
Written by: Brent Simon