Film review: The Whistleblower

November 25, 2011

In the harrowing suspense drama “The Whistleblower,” Rachel Weisz plays the role of the real-life Kathy Bolkovac, the U.N. peacekeeper who exposed widespread sex trafficking in postwar Bosnia in the late 1990s.

"The Whistleblower"

The film begins with Bolkovac navigating a divorce and working too hard at her job as a cop in Nebraska. Desperate for money so she can resolve child custody issues, she accepts a six-month contract with a private security firm in Bosnia.

Bolkovac soon discovers that postwar Bosnia is a desperate place indeed, and that the international police force administered by the U.N. is rife with neglect and corruption. Nevertheless, Bolkovac takes her duties seriously. She initiates the first successful prosecution of domestic violence and is eventually appointed head of the U.N.’s Gender Affairs bureau.

After a raid at a local bar, Bolkovac uncovers evidence of a brutal sex trafficking ring in which girls – some as young as 14 – are sold to the very peacekeepers who are supposed to be protecting them. In one pivotal passage, Bolkovac explores the back room of the bar with a flashlight and the filmmakers provide a five-minute masterclass on cinema technique. In a scene with no dialogue or even sound, the depravity and cruelty of the girls’ situation is told in a sequence of images – bloody mattresses, a pile of syringes, chains driven into the walls.

First-time feature director Larysa Kondracki keeps the storytelling lean and efficient throughout, as Bolkovac’s investigation starts to threaten the U.N.’s entire mission in Bosnia. It soon becomes clear that certain members of the private security firm aren’t just clients of the sex trafficking ring, they’re actively complicit in and profiting from it.

The second half of the movie works essentially as a suspense thriller, with Weisz trying to tell friend from foe among her colleagues, including Monica Belluci as a frosty government official, David Strathairn as an Internal Affairs investigator, and Vanessa Redgrave as U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.

“The Whistleblower” keeps its attention focused properly. The brutality of the crimes the film deals with demands a solemnity of approach, and director Kondracki avoids the usual flourishes of the Hollywood thriller. She also puts a tragic face to the story by following the story of one particular Ukranian girl, from her initial abduction to her final fate.

But be forewarned – the film contains several scenes of shocking sexual violence. These sequences had a visceral effect on me; I found them literally nauseating. The images are there for a reason – this isn’t cynical torture porn – but the context and realism of the scenario make them that much more disturbing.

By far the film’s greatest asset is the powerhouse performance from Rachel Weisz, who has a half-dozen different scenes that land like gut punches. My guess is she’s a lock for an Oscar nomination this year.

“The Whistleblower” has occasional problems with clarity. All those governmental acronyms and thick Slavic accents muddy several scenes. But overall, this is a tough, effective film. Title cards appended to the movie’s final scenes provide facts from the real-life investigation, plus some sobering statistics about international sex trafficking.

Grade: A-
Director: Larysa Kondracki
Cast: Rachel Weisz, Monica Bellucci, Vanessa Redgrave, David Strathairn
Length: 1 hour, 52 minutes
Rated R for disturbing violent content including a brutal sexual assault, graphic nudity and language


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