Kernel Rating (out of 5):
Length: 112 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
Age Appropriate for: 17+. “The Whistleblower” is SUCH a hard R, it will be jarring for both 17-year-olds legally able to get in and their parents. There’s a lot of cursing and, of course, tons of sexual content and violence — most of them together. Characters are raped, beaten, attacked, threatened and killed; absolutely nothing will make you smile.
‘The Whistleblower’ is thrilling, heavy-handed, affecting and over-the-top — as an account of sex crimes and trafficking in post-war Bosnia, it’s sometimes too straightforward and simplistic. But as a showcase for actress Rachel Weisz, and a depiction of a true story that’s too gruesome to easily forget, it’s exceptionally compelling.
By Roxana Hadadi
No scene in “The Whistleblower” will make you laugh, or feel good about society, or believe that hope and justice will prevail in the world. This movie will hurt you, frustrate you, offend you and probably make you hate bureaucracy in any form — for good reason. But as trying as “The Whistleblower” is to watch, and as despicable as sex trafficking is, the film is unbelievably gripping when it wants to be.
The film is classified as a thriller, and that basically fits. Though the film takes time to build in the beginning and drags a bit toward the end, its mid-section is all Weisz’s steely gaze, the haunted looks of trafficked girls and the smug grins of men in power who know they’ll remain in power, whatever terrible things they do. Things move briskly for a while, but too often the movie gets bogged down by trying to show the terribleness from all angles: The girls’ grieving families, the evil men’s evil plans, the few good guys’ frustrating conversations. The film could have been shorter, and perhaps more dynamic, if various subplots were trimmed down or eliminated altogether. With too many far-reaching threads, the core of “The Whistleblower” gets a little lost.
But most of it is depressing enough to be unforgettable. Based on the true story of Kathryn Bolkovac, a Nebraska cop who went to work for the United Nations in post-war Bosnia, the film follows how Bolkovac got caught up in a scandal with her employer, U.S. company DynCorp, working under contract for the U.N. After Bolkovac was promoted to lead the gender affairs department within the U.N.’s force in Bosnia, she started investigating sex trafficking within the country — and soon realized many of the men abusing, raping and sometimes buying these girls were in fact Americans and other DynCorp and U.N. employees. As she attempted to protect the girls and prosecute the men involved, she pitted herself against an unyielding bureaucracy that refused to acknowledge what was really going on — no matter how heinous.
In this adaptation, Bolkovac (Weisz) is immediately likable — even if her commitment to her job as a police officer in Lincoln, Neb., keeps her somewhat distant from her daughter with her ex-husband, it’s clear the notion of justice is fundamentally a part of her. So after little consideration, she decides to take the job with U.S. contractor Democra Security (the name of the company is changed for the film) in post-war Bosnia, and is immediately thrown off by the ignorance and cruelty she encounters, such as Bosnian police officers who refuse to arrest a woman’s husband for beating her because she’s Muslim. She urges sympathetic Bosnian cop Viko (Alexandra Potocean) to take the case to court, and her dedication catches the eye of U.N. higher-up Madeleine Rees (Vanessa Redgrave), who promotes her to be head of the gender affairs office. It’s there that Bolkovac meets Raya (Roxana Condurache), a teenager sold into sex slavery — and when their partnership begins to catch the eyes of the wrong people.
Bolkovac wants to save Raya, but she’s blocked at every turn. The police supposedly raid the bar where Raya works (actually just saving the head honchos from getting arrested), but when Bolkovac goes inside and finds used condoms, drugs, chains, cages, stacks of cash and demeaning, incriminating photographs everywhere, she realizes the Bosnian cops and the U.N. workers are all in on it. She tries to keep Raya safe in the country, but head of the Global Displacement Agency Laura Leviani (Monica Bellucci at her coldest) won’t make any accommodations for the trafficked girls, since they lack passports and proper documentation. And all the while, her co-workers at Democra are constantly stalling her investigation — watching her as she watches them, planning against her as she plans against them.
“The Whistleblower” would have worked better if that cat-and-mouse game is what the film stuck to. But too many times director Larysa Kondracki, who also wrote the film with Eilis Kirwan, breaks away from that plot to follow Raya’s grieving mother, or Raya’s interaction with the other lost girls, or Bolkovac’s romance with fellow contractor Jan (Nikolaj Lie Kaas). All those subplots make sense — especially since the rape and violence committed against Raya and the other girls is the emotional crux of “The Whistleblower” — but they derail from the action in a way that stagnates the overall film.
Nevertheless, it’s all significant, terrible stuff, and Weisz does well as the increasingly frustrated, bitter and determined Bolkovac; in one climactic freak-out, where she screams and curses at her fellow contractors when they come to threaten the girls she’s trying to save, her overwhelming rage truly resonates. Similarly impressive is Condurache, who crumbles so horrifyingly from a bright, bubbly teenager into a hardened victim aware of the power her traffickers hold. It’s unbelievably painful to watch.
And there’s so much here that will stay with you in saddening ways: rape scenes involving objects like metal pipes, photographs and videos of men abusing these women, the blatant disregard from high U.N. officials of what’s happening to people in a country they’re supposed to be saving. It’s all the more awful because these things actually happened, and though “The Whistleblower” isn’t a perfect film, it’s an undeniably important one.