In the opening scene of Traitor, Jeffrey Nachmanoff's thriller about a devoted Muslim who struggles to keep his violent tendencies in check, a young boy witnesses his father die in a horrifying car bomb. Flash forward to the present day, and that boy is now Samir Horn (Don Cheadle), a multilingual entrepreneur who sells detonators to terrorists. After his father's tragic death, Samir moved to Chicago with his mother and then joined the U.S. military, serving in Afghanistan before going AWOL after rediscovering his Muslim faith there. He's managed to make a living serving as a middleman between terrorist groups, but when he gets captured in an ambush and sent to a prison in Yemen, his only way out is to befriend the terrorists there. He strikes up a friendship with Omar (Sa•d Taghmaoui), a Westernized radical who, like Samir, speaks English and plays chess. With a little help from Omar's friends, the two eventually bust out of prison, and Samir soon joins their cause and begins to help plan a strike on American soil.
But things aren't as simple as they first appear. Though Samir rebukes tenacious FBI agent Roy Clayton (Guy Pearce) when the agent initially tries to get him out of jail, Samir is not a terrorist. Rather, he's working undercover for a renegade U.S.-based antiterrorist contractor named Carter (Jeff Daniels), who wants to bring down the entire cell within which Omar works. While the movie's twists and turns get a bit confusing, it's never boring. There's plenty of tension throughout the entire film as Samir tries to infiltrate a top-secret organization and still keep in communication with his American contact. Cheadle is great as Samir, a guy who's given his life to his country yet prays daily to the god of another culture. And Pearce is decent as an FBI agent who's always one step ahead of his dim-witted, knee-jerk peers. Unfortunately, the film is burdened with heavy-handed dialogue about the nature of religion and the purposes of terrorism. While it's likely terrorists do a good deal of pontificating in order to rally their soldiers, I find it hard to believe they're as pensive and contemplative as Omar and his cohorts tend to be. Good thing the chemistry between Cheadle and Pearce, whose characters have more in common than each is willing to admit, was explosive enough to keep the film interesting. - Jeff Niesel
First-time director and screenwriter Courtney Hunt got the idea for this somber, contemplative drama while visiting her husband's family in upstate New York. There, she learned that on the Indian reservations bordering Canada, there's an active trade in smuggling illegal immigrants across the border, much of it conducted by Native American women, who drive their cars across the frozen St. Lawrence River. The movie, shot in subzero weather, centers on Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo), a struggling mom who works part-time at a dollar store and whose gambling-addicted husband has run off two days before Christmas with the money for their house payment. While searching for her husband, Ray meets Lila Littlewolf (Misty Upham), a laconic young Mohawk woman who persuades Ray to help her smuggle Chinese and Pakistani illegals across the border in her car trunk.
The danger of the enterprise provides some heart-racing drama as the women connive to elude the police. Ray and Lila are driven to desperate measures by their love for their children: Ray's sons, restless teenager T.J. (well played by Charlie McDermott) and 6-year-old Ricky (James Reilly), who are counting on her as the family's sole provider; and Lila's baby, taken from her at birth and raised by relatives after her husband's death. The film, which Hunt initially made as a short, presents a gritty portrait of lives lived at the margins and effectively dramatizes the cultural contrasts between Indians and whites, the peculiar intersections of tribal and state laws, the moral dimensions of immigration and the sacrifices inherent in motherly love. Leo (21 Grams, Law & Order) is almost painfully real as the tough-minded Ray. To her credit, Hunt is not afraid to make her a less than fully sympathetic heroine: At one point, Ray's irritable suspicion of a Pakistani immigrant family jeopardizes the life of a baby. Although some of the plot developments are not quite plausible, the film is a serious-minded, deeply felt work by a promising talent. - Pamela Zoslov
Opens Friday at the Cedar Lee Theatre
The brilliant French actor Mathieu Amalric (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) is the principal reason to see Heartbeat Detector, director Nicolas Klotz's intermittently fascinating but borderline pretentious Holocaust drama disguised as a corporate thriller. Based on Franois Emmanuel's well-regarded novel, the film can't seem to make up its mind about what it wants to say - or even how. Klotz rambles along for nearly two and a half hours, blowing a lot of hot air in the process.
The plot involves eager-beaver yuppie Simon (Amalric), the human resources director at the Paris branch of SC Farb, a huge multinational corporation. On the sly, the firm's supercilious assistant director (Jean-Pierre Kalfon) asks Simon to compile a secret report on Mathias JŸst (superb veteran actor Michael Lonsdale), the company's majordomo. JŸst's behavior has been erratic lately, and corporate brass in Berlin are understandably concerned. At least that's what Simon is initially told. As his stealth investigation proceeds - mostly in fits and starts; Simon, like the film, has a lot on his plate - JŸst's long-suppressed WW II memories (Nazis are involved) come back to haunt him. It turns out that everyone at SC Farb has a nasty little secret of his or her own, and blackmailing becomes as common a pastime as three-martini lunches.
Klotz's sound design (music, both classical and industrial-metal, plays a key role in his overarching metaphor) is so inspired that his lack of control over the narrative elements seems doubly unfortunate. Happily, Amalric's bravura performance - which runs ice-cold and smoking hot in regular intervals - helps compensate for a lot of the movie's directorial missteps. Amalric, who plays the heavy in the upcoming 007 blockbuster Quantum of Solace, is one of the finest working actors in films today. He even makes sitting through the overlong and frequently overwrought Heartbeat Detector less of a drag. - Milan Paurich
Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque At 9:15 p.m. Friday, August 29 and at 7:15 p.m. Saturday, August 30
A critics' favorite at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, where it played in the Un Certain Regard sidebar, first-time writer-director Céline Sciamma's Water Lilies brings a distinctly feminine sensibility to the story of three 15-year-old girls growing up in the Paris suburbs. The title derives from a municipal swimming pool where Floriane (Adele Haenel, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the Heavenly Creatures-era Kate Winslet), Marie (Pauline Acquart) and Anne (Louise Blachre) spend a good part of the summer practicing their synchronized-swimming routines. But Water Lilies is less about aquatics than it is about the perilous path to becoming a woman. (Yes, sexual exploration and experimentation are involved in the course of that journey.) Throughout the summer, each girl follows her own separate path. Lissome, coquettish blonde Floriane quickly becomes the favorite of all the testosterone-addled boys; Marie is the flat-chested wallflower who becomes Floriane's de facto confidante/accomplice; and chubby Anne pines for a boy (Warren Jacquin's Franois) she can never have, since his heart already belongs to Floriane.
If that setup makes Water Lilies sound like just another banal teen movie, Sciamma's poetic, lyrical treatment helps it transcend genre formula. The uninflected naturalism of the writing and performances prevents the film's more prosaic touches (e.g., repeated cutaways to the girls' flailing limbs, submerged in the water like some form of exotic sea mammal) from becoming merely decorous (the movie's original French title, Naissance Des Pieuvres, roughly translates as "Birth of Octopuses"). Unlike most screen treatments of adolescence that portray teenage girls as mere appendages of the male characters - probably because most of them are written and directed by men - Water Lilies goes deeper into the female unconscious and the latent stirrings of desire than any film in recent memory. - Paurich
Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque At 7:30 p.m. Friday, August 29 and at 5:30 p.m. Saturday, August 30