As we know from her role as the anti-big-pharma activist in The Constant Gardener, Rachel Weisz can perform a rare feat: playing socially-conscious heroines who are fierce and passionate without being self-righteous. In The Whistleblower she is so perfectly cast as a woman who stumbles across high-level sex-trafficking that she almost single-handedly carries this disjointed movie and its weighty theme.
Weisz’ character, Kathy Bolkovac (based on a real woman) is a Nebraska police officer who goes to Bosnia in 1999 as part of a well-paid U.N. peacekeeping force. It’s horrific enough when she learns that young women are being kidnapped and forced into prostitution. Eventually she discovers that the local police and even U.N. bureaucrats are complicit. If only director Larysa Kondracki had made a film as compelling as its subject. Instead of sleek suspense, though, The Whistleblower comes with too many moving parts, arranged in more of a jumble than a coherent whole.
The film (written by Kondracki and Eilis Kirwan) begins with unidentified young women being abducted, then zooms back to Kathy in Nebraska, where she needs a better job if she hopes to regain custody of her daughter. Soon she’s in Bosnia, a victim of sexism in her unit, surrounded by corruption. Kathy may be puzzling out who the villains are, but we should at least have a more lucid sense of which characters are local cops and which are just thugs. Add to that a half-baked plot about Kathy’s new love interest (Nikolaj Lie Kaas, so affecting in Suzanne Bier’s Brothers) and what should have been a taut thriller feels clumsily cobbled together.
As always, Weisz is supremely convincing, as Kathy responds with disbelief and outrage. Vanessa Redgrave and David Strathairn strengthen the film in small roles as bureaucrats Kathy hopes will help her. But it all adds up to a wasted opportunity.
Both Weisz and Kondracki are clearly invested in exposing the truth, just as Kathy did when she blew the whistle on her own organization. And we witness a few startling scenes, including a view of a basement where women are kept in such squalid captivity that the phrase “white slavery” becomes visceral. But Kondracki always seems more interested in the story’s brute facts than its narrative arc. Weisz’ sense of discovery keeps us watching, but even she can’t disguise the way The Whistleblower is a rickety drama too easily reduced to a noble message.