Traitors [2013 Sean Gullette Film Remake] Review

AKA: Khuna, Khuna (2013), Traitors (2013)
Genre: Crime Drama/Adventure
Year Released: 2013
Distributor: Film Movement
Origin: Morocco/USA
Running Time: 83 minutes
Rating/Recommended Audience: R
Related Films/Series: Traitors (2011 short film)
For Fans Of: The Two Lives of Daniel Shore, Breaking Bad, The Rooftops, Power, The Runaways, Scarface
Notes: N/A
Fun Facts:
-Traitors is the full-length directorial debut of actor Sean Gullette. He’s originally from Boston, but also has a French passport as well as living in Tangier, Morocco. This film is actually a full-length remake of his short film of the same name (also, his first time directing something). Gullette is best known for being the lead character Max Cohen in the movie Pi. He’s also multilingual knowing English, Arabic, Spanish, and Italian. One future project he’s working on is a movie called Tangier which is said to feature Kristin Scott Thomas as well as Jeremy Irons of all people.

-Tangier is the 3rd most populated city in Morocco with over 947,000 people living there. It’s on the Northern coast across from Gibraltar. Some famous people associated with Tangier include author William S. Borroughs, music video director Sanaa Hamri, and CBC TV/radio host Ralph Benmergui to name a few.

-Malika is played by Chaimae Ben Acha. It was actually her debut role (going back to the original short film) and she would later be in Beirut and Malak. Yes, that is her singing in character in the movie, too.

Here’s another movie that I’ve watched before, but never had the chance to review. This time it involves a film from the North African nation of Morocco. Technically, I have reviewed something that was co-produced in that country with Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembene’s swan song work Moolaade, but this time I get to review something from Morocco proper. If anyone were to mention that country in the context of films, the first thing people will probably bring up is Casablanca. Yes, the story takes place in that country’s biggest city, but that was made in Los Angeles and didn’t feature characters who would look like they were from that city much less Morocco at large. I forgot. Hollywood sucks when it comes to representing Africa regardless if it’s a Black or Arab majority part of the continent and I’ll spare you two obvious animated examples to add to my point. Here’s a dirty little secret…I think Casablanca is one of the most overrated movies ever, but that’s a story for another day. That issue doesn’t happen here as it was filmed directly in that country as well as featuring actors from there. Let’s leave it up to Film Movement to bring something from that country over here even if it was directed by an American living there.

Because I’m reviewing something from that country, I feel super obligated to use this old-school reference. Like Webster’s Dictionary, I’m Morocco-bound! That reference predates me by decades, and if you don’t know what I’m talking about, then check out this song.

Traitors takes place in Tangier and it involves the life of a young woman named Malika. She’s single, twenty-five years old, lives with her parents, and is the lead singer of an all-female punk band that shares the name of this movie. They’ve been putting in work making a music video and recording a demo for a producer. The demo reaches the producer’s ears and was impressed enough to work with that band. The catch is they have to pony up the cash to get studio time down in Casablanca (I’m talking about the actual city, to be clear). They don’t have the money and things get worse for Malika. She gets fired from her French-language call center job and her family faces eviction. Malika does work at her dad’s garage as a mechanic, but it’s not paying enough. She’s desperate to scrounge up money even to the point of stealing from a Frenchman by tricking him into being a prostitute for him. It doesn’t go well as she’s attacked by him and his goons. She does get saved from her last customer at the garage, but the twist is that her last customer the wheelchair-bound Samir is actually a traplord. He hears her plight and is willing to pay her for a well-paying job…that job involves being a drug mule. It is more than enough to pay for studio time AND to save her family from losing her home even though she’s straight edge. The job involves her getting several pounds of weed hidden in an SUV while being accompanied by a more experienced mule named Amal who knows what to do and where to go. Will Malika succeed in doing this illegal job much to her extreme reluctance?

I first saw this movie on Netflix a few years ago (it’s not currently streaming at the time of this review), but it was good revisiting this film. The visual production had the right mix of grittiness without coming off as superficial while also having crisp cinematography during the daytime scenes or in the more idyllic parts of Morocco. The scenes with Malika and her band driving around filming the video as well as making an impromptu projection from the tour van were very nice and really felt quite punk rock to match the music. While there wasn’t much music coming from the band, the opening scene of them singing “I’m So Bored with Morocco” was a good performance. The music for the soundtrack was a good mix of traditional Arab rhythms, ambient works, and punk rock instrumentals like whenever Malika was about to commit to something important to complete her goals. There was some good acting with the major characters. While I thought Malika looked like some fusion between Mira Arroyo from Ladytron and Alice Glass while infusing said fusion with Arab DNA, she did a great job playing this tomboyish punk rocker chick. She nails the right emotions so well and her character had good dynamics with her caring about her little sister as well as having some wisdom of her own. Samir looked like he was going to be the lead villain (spoilers avoided) and that one smile he gave Malika telling her about the job just screamed “I’m TOTALLY up to no good!”, even he was a surprise with how he acted in the final act. Sure, he has anger issues and is scary when incensed, Samir has his own limits when it comes to hearing about people being mistreated. Amal as the burned-out drug mule veteran who helps Malika was also intriguing. You could just feel the disillusionment with her character as she rarely smiles, is impatient about different mistakes, but she also has a disturbing edge to her when she tries to snort cocaine behind her employer’s back and her condition gives a ton of fridge horror when she confesses to Malika (thankfully she gets called out on it and not just the usage of white powder). Going back to the visual production, I noticed a very interesting choice during their driving scenes with their conversations being covered with alternating close-up shots. I think that was an homage or reference to Taste of Cherry since road trips do play a part in both movies albeit for different reasons. Makes me wonder if Sean Gullette watched some Abbas Kiarostami flicks before making Traitors. The ending did have positive things and some parts of it were quite believable while still acknowledging how that drug mule job was troublesome in and of itself.

Traitors, despite being about a punk rock singer can seem a bit like a poser at times. Malika’s band is very underdeveloped and just feels like random bodies around her mainly at the beginning of the film. I couldn’t remember their names at all and their music besides the opening song isn’t explored at all. I’m not saying Traitors should be some North African crime drama version of Josie and the Pussycats, but I would like to know more about the band and their music. The ending while positive is very rushed as it relies too much on montages to fill in the loose ends to make it a complete story. Even before that during the last ten or twenty minutes of the film, there were plot conveniences with the gang, Amal’s plan to take a flight away from Tangier (spoilers minimized), and how Malika ends up getting the money. How she got it did make sense with Samir’s character, but I thought she got off a bit too easy even if she was an accessory to driving a marijuana-packed SUV around. My biggest issue with Traitors is misrepresenting the music and philosophy of punk rock. Don’t get me wrong, from a music standpoint, Malika and company certainly sound punk enough out of context. Side note: I thought it was hilarious when their prospective manager said Malika was like Joe Strummer from The Clash because they both “sounded like [crap]” after hearing their demo (she was joking). However, I thought Gullette and the writers REALLY missed the point about punk rock to unintentionally comic levels for me. I can’t believe I have to bust out my music fan cred like in my No New Kinda Story review, but I have to do this again. If the Traitors band was so punk, they would record a demo and a real record by themselves. Malika is shown having video editing skills on her laptop with some good software, so she or the other members have no idea about quality music production let alone looking up how to do so on the internet? I don’t buy that. Them trying to rake up money to go to a studio in Casablanca is the same thing as an American underground band scrounging up money to go to a nice studio in New York City or LA by comparison. That makes Malika and her bandmates look shallow and extremely selfish in hindsight. If they were some pop punk band like a Moroccan version of a Paramore or The Veronicas then I might be more forgiving, but for a band like Traitors having a rougher sound as well as their main song dealing with topics such as political corruption, police brutality, the migration issue (mainly Africans going on rafts to Europe), then this makes them just one step above your typical Hot Topic mall punk act. I’m sorry, but I’ve been to real punk shows (at venues and basements), booked punk bands, and there are musicians I still talk to that incorporate those DIY ethics to this day, so I know what I’m talking about and the creators should’ve really done their research on that genre.

This debut work from Sean Gullette was alright, but it didn’t move the needle even with a second watch. Traitors was certainly shot well and had some good acting in it. The musical choices were appropriate, but the portrayal of a punk rock band is highly superficial when the movie doesn’t depict it as such. The plot could’ve been avoided if they tried to go full-on DIY, but I guess it wouldn’t be as exciting as the lead singer driving several pounds of grass around. I really wanted to like Traitors a lot more, but there were too many flaws for it to be a masterpiece for me.

Adjustable Point System:
Add 1-2 points if you like crime dramas.
Add 1 point if you like North African/Middle Eastern movies.
Subtract 1-2 points if you want well-paced movies.
Subtract 2-4 points if you know things about punk rock as both a musical genre and as a philosophy.

-Very good visual production
-Nice soundtrack and score
-Competent acting

-Rushed ending and plot conveniences
-Lack of development of supporting characters
-Inaccurate portrayal of punk music that makes Traitors VERY shallow in hindsight

Final Score: 6/10 Points

Content Warning: Traitors is one movie that’s definitely not for kids. Did I forget to mention that Malika gets involved in a drug transportation job as a major plot point? They even show Amal packing the car full of weed and is shown sneaking some of that nose candy when no one’s looking. There’s a disturbing aspect about Amal doing drugs, but it’s ironically when she attempts to smoke a cigarette of all things when a secret is revealed that makes her really messed up. The language is very strong with a lot of the swearing done in Arabic and some parts in English with the manager. There are sexual aspects with Malika pretending to prostitute herself when stealing money or when a traplord punishes Amal by stripping her down to her bra before hosing her after finding out she snorted some of his cocaine stashes. Some characters are mentioned to have died offscreen as punishment for trying to escape the drug dealing game and one character dies from being poisoned in the ending montage. There’s also some violence like Malika beating up that French John in the streets, but that’s the least worrisome thing.

-Curtis Monroe

All photos and videos property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws. Traitors is property of Film Movement. The DVD cover is from Amazon and is property of Film Movement.

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