Elegy and Traitor 

Elegy Three and a half stars (R)
Traitor Three stars (PG-13)

Two new dramas for you this long Labor Day weekend, one a thriller with a difference, the other a story of self-sabotage, both boasting great casts.

Traitor stars the wonderful Don Cheadle (Hotel Rwanda, Ocean’s 11 and its sequels) as Samir Horn, who grew up in America after watching his father get blown up by a car bomb in his native Sudan. Horn is a devoted Muslim dealing with explosives and extremists. Is he a terrorist, as what we see suggests, or an agent of the United States government, as the fact that he’s the protagonist of a major movie being nationally released would lead us to believe?

His jihadist colleagues, including fellow prison escapee Omar (Said Taghmaoui), consider him be an agent of Allah. FBI agents Clayton (Guy Pearce) and Archer (Neal McDonough) are convinced he’s a traitor and are determined to catch him. Archer is one of those shoot-first-and-let-God-sort-it-out guys, while Clayton, the son of a Baptist minister, is a Southern gentleman with a more refined take on his job. They chase Horn all over the globe, unaware that a CIA vet named Carter (Jeff Daniels) is somehow involved in the goings-on.

The film moves between the Middle East and Chicago, Washington, D.C., Toronto and Nova Scotia as it builds suspense. Traitor is intense, very intense, with enough action to satisfy most summer movie fans and plenty of drama as well. For me, the film dragged in the middle and the decision to keep Omar’s political allegiances in question for most of the movie kept us from getting a chance to really know the character. Still, Cheadle keeps Horn interesting, although I’m still trying to figure out the logic behind the man’s decision to visit a loved one late in the story. Why would such a smart fellow do something so incredibly self-defeating? Script convenience, I reckon.

Bottom line, even if it stays close to the surface philosophically, Traitor works as a taut, well-acted suspense thriller. Oh, and how nice it is to see a Muslim as the lead character in a mainstream movie.

Elegy is as far from a suspense thriller as you can get. The story, based on Philip Roth’s novel The Dying Animal, deals with a man whose fear of things going wrong is so strong that he can’t enjoy what’s going on in the moment. Sir Ben Kingsley plays David Kepesh, a professor having an affair with a student 30 years younger. The student is Consuela Castillo (Penelope Cruz) and Kepesh should be savoring every moment with this smart, charming and beautiful woman. Instead, he’s worrying, aloud and often, about the age difference, about his age in general, about health, death and the lousy relationship he has with his son (Peter Sarsgaard). He annoys his longtime lover (Patricia Clarkson) and exasperates his best friend (Dennis Hopper) as he yaks and yaks and yaks.   

Some people will have problems with the dour tone and Kepesh’s incessant fretting. Though I wanted to give the professor the kind of slap Cher gave Nicolas Cage in Moonstruck and shout, “Snap out of it!” the film held me because the acting is so strong and the characters are so believable. It’s achingly easy to become consumed with the past and afraid of the future to the point that you don’t enjoy the present. Traitor offers suspense and action, Elegy offers an object lesson. Both are overly somber, but rewarding.

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