Monday, May 11, 2015

Betrayed (1988): Lots of guts, but no brain


There are some movies which, while they have a good idea, fail because of some flaw in the execution. The 1988 drama Betrayed is the perfect example of a good concept poorly served.

Why it should be seen

It has a good pedigree - it's directed by the Oscar-winning Costa-Gavras (Z) and stars Debra Winger and Tom Berenger. The subject matter is ahead of its time - dealing with the sovereign citizen movement years before the Oklahoma City Bombing brought these groups into the public conscience.

The movie opens promisingly, with the drive-by shooting of a liberal shock jock by masked white supremacists. Staged to evoke the murder of DJ Alan Berg in 1984, the filmmakers clearly set up what is meant to be a tough-minded examination of modern hate groups. This act galvanises the FBI into action, and leads to Debra Winger's FBI agent going undercover in a midwestern farming community to find out who the culprits are.

At this point, the movie turns into a perverse variation on Witness, as Winger is drawn deeper and deeper into a relationship with a local farmer who is believed to be leading the group (Berenger). There are several highly effective and disturbing scenes, but while the cross-burning and 'man' hunt are disturbing, it is the quiet moments, when Winger is learning about Berenger's family and friends, that are the most unsettling -- an eerie bedside conversation between Winger and Berenger's young daughter in which the little girl casually explains the family's incredibly twisted worldview; or the community picnic which turns out to be a gathering of a different kind.

What makes this part of the film work is that Costa-Gavras, with his talent for mixing hot button political issues with commercial genres, is able to toe the line between dramatic narrative and fleshing out the fringe society who are the ostensible villains of the film. Rather than simply paint its subjects as cartoonish villains, this part of the film is more concerned with exploring the economic and political context for the movement's existence and why its members are willing to believe in its ideology. The movie does not shy away from showing the extent of their prejudice or condone their heinous actions (the DJ's assassination is only the tip of the iceberg with these people), it gives them a human face -- which makes them al the more disturbing: the banality of evil in its most average (white) American form.

Why it doesn't get more attention
I was of two minds about this movie. While I was watching the first half, the thought that kept running through my head is 'this is fantastic. Why have I never heard about this before?' And then the movie went downhill and my good spirits had been washed away. While the first half is excellent, the second half of the movie degrades into a series of increasingly melodramatic plot twists.

The script is really the major flaw with the movie. It is written by Joe Ezterhas, the writer of Flashdance, Basic Instinct and Showgirls, a writer who is not known for nuance. The central problem with Betrayed is that it takes a fascinating issue (the sovereign citizen movement) and then trivialises it by using it as the backdrop to the familiar thriller plot line of the protagonist who goes in over her/his head by becoming involved with the person they are investigating. Ezterhas had already used this plot in the 1985 courtroom thriller Jagged Edge and would re-use it for Basic Instinct and other scripts. It's a tired conceit, and Ezterhas does not do enough to make this part of the plot feel more original or natural to the story.

While not a complete failure, Betrayed is a major disappointment considering the potential it had for being great. Considering the way in which the sovereign citizen movement has become such a major problem for US authorities (with the Bundy ranch standoff and the police killings in Las Vegas last year), it is even more of a disappointment. Hopefully some brave studio head will green light a project that deals with the subject of the sovereign citizen groups and bring this problem the mainstream attention it deserves.

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