Costa-Gavras has an admirable sense of outrage at the injustices he sees in the modern world but it's hard, watching Betrayal, not to wonder what a great film he might make if he could just stop trying to deliver his message through such worn out suspense plots. His command of filmmaking is supremely confident in this mid-American melodrama and his handling of actors has rarely been better but the end result is something which doesn't really work either as a message movie or as an effective thriller.
The film takes off from a fictionalised version of a genuine killing - the shooting by white supremacists of "shock jock" Alan Berg in Denver - and introduces us to Katie (Winger), a 'combine girl' who has been hired to cover the busy harvest season in a small town in Iowa. She becomes romantically involved with Gary (Berenger), a widower with two children and appears to be just the woman he needs to restore his faith in love after the highway murder of his wife three years earlier. However, Katie is not all that she seems, as it is revealed to us that she is an undercover FBI agent who has been charged with the task of discovering if Gary - a suspected member of a right wing militia group - was involved in the murder of the DJ. Her boss Michael (Heard) is a boorish sexist (and Katie's ex-lover) and he is convinced that Gary is implicated in the killing but Katie can't believe that the man she is falling in love with could possibly be an extremist, let alone the organiser of atrocities in the name of white supremacy. Her feelings become conflicted when she hears him voice racist sentiments and are sent into turmoil when she becomes directly implicated in Gary's secret life.
The gradual unfolding of Gary's monstrous sympathies is very well handled by Costa-Gavras and it's easy to believe that Katie could have such a hard time believing that he could really be a killer. The truth is revealed in a genuinely horrifying sequence when Katie is invited to a 'hunt', where a kidnapped black man is tracked down through the woods and then shot. The rights and wrongs of including such a scene could be discussed but in terms of the film, it's a brilliant and shocking sequence which is perhaps necessary to demonstrate the logical result of Gary's extreme political beliefs. It's also hugely effective propaganda of course and needs to be seen in the context of Costa-Gavras' career as a whole. In every film he's made, events have been exaggerated and fictionalised in order to serve the left-wing liberal message in which he has a passionate belief. Only once has he turned this against the political left - in the powerful, little known The Confession, a study of the Stalinist show trials - which is a shame since it tends to result in a belief that he is a leftist party-liner when he's actually more of a liberal humanist. Right-wing subversion is one of his favourite subjects, covered in two of his classic films, Z and Missing, and this feeds into enough of Betrayed to make it worth seeing. But there's also a distinct sense of exploitation here and the hunt sequence is shot for queasy shock effects which aren't all that far away from the murders in a slasher movie. Far more effective are the quieter scenes, such as the believably banal white supremacist training camp where the neo-Nazis trot about in their uniforms and white-cloaked morons set crosses alight and sing "Amazing Grace" moments before taking delivery of illegal weaponary. The banality of evil is well captured here, especially in an excellent performance from John Mahoney as Shorty, a farmer whose political radicalism has been fired by the bank taking his farm away and Vietnam taking his son from him. When he casually talks about the evils of 'niggers' and jews, his quiet rationality is far more disturbing than the more obviously upsetting hunt sequence. Equally disturbing and believable is a sad scene where Gary's cute little daughter talks about "killing all the dirty niggers and the jews".
Indeed, what Costa-Gavras does very well is suggest how extreme right-wing organisations can flourish in apparently normal small towns and suck in people who are otherwise entirely normal. He doesn't make the mistake of turning the racists into crude caricatures - as Alan Parker does in Mississippi Burning - and in the character of Gary, he allows Tom Berenger a small triumph. Berenger has always been a more interesting actor than his best known roles have demonstrated and he makes Gary an entirely believable figure. His sincerity is evident in everything he does and while this doesn't make him sympathetic, it does help us to understand why Katie would be so conflicted in her feelings about him. In the early scenes, Berenger is so charismatic and likeable that when the truth is revealed, we somehow want his true nature to be some kind of mistake or deception. Debra Winger is also excellent in an impossible role which demands the character of Katie to be pulled every which way without ever quite defining just what she is doing in the FBI or why on earth such a tough broad would put up with the patronising jerks she is forced to work with. Winger hasn't done much work for a long time and that's a great shame. Pauline Kael called her one of the greatest of screen actresses and this performance is a marvellous demonstration of her subtlety and commitment to her craft.
However, as a thriller, this doesn't really have anywhere to go once the twists have been sprung - which is much too soon. There isn't enough tension in the film because the revelations about Katie and Gary are made in the first half hour, so all we have to do is wait to see how long it will take for Gary to find out that his new love is an FBI agent. Joe Eszterhaus is very fond of this type of plot - the old, is-s/he-or- isn't-s/he device also crops up in Jagged Edge, Music Box and Basic Instinct - but his decision to reveal all to the audience so soon in this film obviously suggests that he thinks the narrative has more dramatic significance than it does. We are gripped by the performances but the characters aren't complex enough to survive this amount of exposure. Gary's behaviour is also ridiculously indiscreet considering that he's telling a woman he barely knows all about things which reveal him as, at the very least, an accessory to murder. Katie's dilemma about him is effectively ended during the hunt sequence, at which point there isn't much else for the film to do except wait for her to be revealed as an undercover agent. It should also be said that the unusual believability of the characters doesn't extend to Wes, overplayed by a grimacing Ted Levine, who is the kind of racist nutter who always pops up sooner or later in this sort of film and is usually played by Brad Dourif.
The sentiments of the film are admirable and the anti-racist message is delivered in no uncertain terms. Praise is also due to the evocative landscapes of middle America and the tight editing of some of the sequences. But it's at least twenty minutes too long, the last act is often idiotically silly and the conclusion is laughably sentimental. There is also some confusion about the title. Who is being "Betrayed" ? Is it the betrayal of Gary's trust by Katie ? Gary's betrayal of his family ? This isn't made clear and it's typical of the basic failure of the film. Costa-Gavras has made enough good films to remain an impressive talent and his most recent movie Amen is a really powerful return to form, but Betrayed is too muddled and, ultimately, too predictable to be effective.
This is another MGM back catalogue release and is typical of their output. It's acceptable without being particularly noteworthy.
The film is presented in an anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer. The picture quality is generally mediocre but with good points. The main virtue is the quality of the colours. These are outstanding and add much to the opening ten minutes with its evocative picture of rural Midwest America. Otherwise, there are lots of artifacts on display during the darker scenes and the overall image seems a little soft and lacking in fine detail.
The soundtrack is a straight Dolby Digital 2.0 presentation of the original stereo soundtrack. This is perfectly adequate for the purpose, much of the dialogue being monophonic and only the music and some ambient effects stretching across left and right channels.
The only extra is the original theatrical trailer which is brief and unexciting. There are 16 chapter stops and a wide range of subtitles.
Betrayed is certainly worth watching for the performances and for some very good scenes. But it's disappointing failure to cohere makes it a dissatisfying experience. The disc is standard fare and offers little to make this an attractive purchase.