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Non-Review Review: The Informer

The Informer is essentially three films packaged in one.

While it’s hard to precisely outline these films without giving too much away, The Informer begins as a sleazy urban thriller about a police informer before morphing into a gritty prison drama before escalating into an elaborate hostage film. There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of these central premises. In fact, as fodder for film making goes, they are very reliable. Each of those three basic premises comes with stakes built in, and would be ubiquitous enough that the audience can follow along without the need for too much exposition or context.

🎵Oh Kinnaman, where’d you run to?
Oh Kinnaman, where’d you run to?
Oh Kinnaman, where’d you run to?
Kinnaman… where you gonna run to?🎶

Unfortunately, The Informer never quite settles on a particular tone or mood as it breezes through each of these three set-ups. The film runs just under two hours, which is a respectable run-time, but it does mean that each of those three genres ends up compressed. The film arguably spends more time on the transition between that initial urban thriller and subsequent prison drama than it does in either setting, creating the impression of a film more interested in visceral movement than a larger journey.

None of the three genres get enough screen-time or development to truly work, instead feeling like rough drafts rather than compelling set-ups. The characters and the storytelling are similarly rushed, often feeling flattened or sanded down in order to ease the movie’s transition from each type of story to the next. The result is a movie that only fleetingly engages, never holding its gaze long enough to deliver on any of its potential.

Poor (in)form.

Joel Kinnaman plays Peter Koslow. Koslow is a decorated war hero, who made one big mistake a long time ago and who has been working desperately to pay off his debts ever since. Koslow works in the Polish mob in New York, helping to smuggle drugs into the country and managing the distribution. He also works as a covert informant for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, providing information on the mysterious crime lord known as “the General.” He does all of this while trying to protect his wife Sofia and his daughter Anna.

All of this is fairly generic. That is no bad thing. Tales about undercover investigations into organised crime make for compelling storytelling, allowing for grand themes about the duality of man and smaller thrills like the immediate tension of high-stakes conversation. Shows like Miami Vice and Wiseguy ran on that tension, which has sustained films like Infernal Affairs and The Departed. It is no surprise that the genre continues to be one of the few reliable frameworks for mid-budget adult-friendly films like The Infiltrator or arguably even American Made.

“Matt Damon made this look a lot more fun.”

More than that, the generic nature of the set-up is a potential boon for a film that wants to pivot as quickly and slyly as The Infiltrator. Recent years have seen certain trends in film and television storytelling that might be termed “narrative accelerationism.” The idea is that audiences are smart enough to understand how particular types of stories work, so films and television stories have to spend less time actually telling those sorts of stories and can spend more time doing interesting things with the familiar genre framework. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is one example, famously retelling its title character’s origin six times.

If The Informer wants to transition dramatically between a collection of genres – to bounce from one type of story to another, to create a sense of momentum and scale – then it makes sense for those genres to be archetypal. The generic set-up of The Informer works precisely because it is generic, because the audience knows exactly what to expect from this type of story. Of course Pete Koslow is a decent person. Of course the Federal Bureau of Investigation are unreliable. Of course things go horribly wrong on what should be his last drug deal.

“Hey, hombre, don’t you know I’m robo?”

However, the problem with The Informer is that everything feels so rushed that its characters and its world never feel like more than a collection of archetypes. Kinnaman is a solid enough leading man, but he lacks the sort of charisma that is necessary to elevate a cypher into a character. Ana de Armas is trapped in a thankless role as Sofia, the put-upon wife who is inevitably resilient and resourceful. Clive Owen is being typically slippery and unreliable as a careerist FBI authority figure. Rosamund Pike gets the best deal as Koslow’s conflicted handler, Wilcox, even if that feels like a shadow of better, earlier roles for the actor.

None of the characters feel real, so none of the stakes feel tangible. The film’s strongest element is perhaps a small supporting role for British character actor Eugene Lipinski as the sinister Polish godfather figure Klimek. It’s a thankless part, one largely driven by cliché threats and undermined by a lack of specificity. Lipinski shrewdly decides to underplay the part, pitching his crime lord as a very grounded and deadpan figure. In a movie that otherwise relies heavily on stock archetypes, the stern and stoic Klimek stands out as one of the finer details at the edge of the narrative.

“He’ll never get out of ‘ear alive.”

However, there is constantly a sense that The Informer never understands its own strengths. Although Klimek is nominally the focus of the elaborate undercover sting operation, and although the threat that his organisation poses to the Koslow remains consistent across the runtime, the character disappears from the story at the point of first transition. The Informer loses a potentially compelling antagonist and foil, dropping him unceremoniously to introduce an entirely new setting with an entirely new collection of characters.

The Informer has so much material to get through that the film never takes any time to properly soak in any of its settings or characters. This leads to a number of missed opportunities and incongruous choices. At one stage, Klimek decides to take control of the drug supply into a local prison for the vaguely-defined purpose of cultivating “an army.” This is a plan that should – in theory – take weeks or months to execute. The compressed time-frame of the narrative means that this elaborate plan takes about ten minutes of screen-time and a long weekend in the world in film.

“No, he’ll never get out of here a-Clive.”

As a result, The Informer hinges on character dynamics and relationships that feel forced, decisions that feel driven more by plot necessity than internal logic. Over the course of the film, Koslow repeatedly confesses to other criminals that he is an undercover operative, which should be a huge deal. However, the speed at which the film movies treats these revelations as a get-out-of-jail-free card. It’s not that the stakes in each case don’t warrant such confessions, it’s that The Informer never demonstrates that Koslow is a particularly good undercover operative before it has him break the cardinal rule of the genre.

The compressed nature of the narrative also forces director and screenwriter Andrea Di Stefano to take a number of awkward shortcuts and to fall back on a variety of clumsy visual and conversational shorthand. The Informer belabours its metaphors. Early in the film, as Koslow helps dispose of an innocent body, he pauses to look at the literal blood on his hands. (It’s a metaphor.) Pete and Sofia operate a small fish shop, a storage space filled with beautiful blue aquatic tanks, glass cages for the exotic creatures therein. (It’s a metaphor.) Characters often speak in plot points rather than dialogue.

Up against the wall.

The film also struggles to properly manage its tone. The Informer roars to life in its third act, in which everything comes crashing down and Koslow is forced to desperately improvise to keep his head above water. Naturally, this involves a lot of narrative contrivance and incredible good fortune, with the gears driving the plot occasionally visible in the background. However, there’s an endearing go-for-broke element to the final act, as the situation escalates both dramatically and ridiculously. The only problem is that none of this gels with the more grounded opening two-thirds, feeling grafted in from a different film.

The Informer is a mess, a film that constantly seems more interested in what it’s going to be next than trying to simply be better at what it is.

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