Canadian thriller “Tainted” is slow-burning to the extent of never quite starting a fire. Nonetheless, this tale of an ex-convict trying to end his ties to both the Russian mob and Aryan Brotherhood holds attention in writer-director Brent Cote’s somber treatment. It’s compelling enough in its non-hyperbolic take on familiar genre elements, even if the depth of tragedy aimed for proves as much out of reach as any nerve-wracking suspense. Taken more as a crime drama than crime thriller, it’s a solid effort that should do well enough among action fans via Epic Picture Group’s June 16 on demand release.
An opening quote about violence from Pope Francis signals the pretensions toward higher meaning that “Tainted” doesn’t really attain. Still, there’s a sufficient atmospheric gravity to the bleak existence of Lance (Alan Van Sprang), a closed-mouthed loner who spends his days working as a welder and his nights alone listening to old blues records in some wintry Ontario hamlet. He’s not long out of a 15-year stint in prison, where he got sent after losing his cool on a job for a Russian drug syndicate, which resulted in the crippling of a major honcho. A contract was taken out on his life, which he survived behind bars by aligning himself with a white supremacist gang. But now he’d like to bury all that past, though its “taint” may be permanent — for one thing, he’s got a swastika tattoo on his chest.
Mob-aligned Finnish expat Gregor (John Ralston) offers an “olive branch” that will get Lance off the Russians’ hit list. But in return he’ll have to do them a “favor,” i.e. eliminate a Brotherhood pocket that is meddling in their drug territory. It’s not at all what he wants to do, but he’s given little choice in the matter. Unfortunately, there is an unseen witness to the subsequent mayhem, which puts Lance right back on that list — along with Anna (Sara Waisglass), an aspiring young musician who also lives in his decrepit apartment building. They’re barely acquainted, but after seeing them interact, the mob assumes she might also “know too much.”
That level of endangerment doesn’t really kick in until halfway through “Tainted,” as Lance fends off a small army of foes including Gregor’s nephew Malick (Aaron Poole) and his own boss Vladimir (John Rhys-Davies). Even then, the film arguably errs on the side of restraint, piling up the bodies without evincing any great flair for building tension or visceral action. It’s better at suggesting the lonely, friendless universe these people inhabit in visual terms, as Kevin Rasmussen’s handsome widescreen cinematography lends the Sault Ste. Marie locations a palpably cold, quasi-Russian severity.
Such atmospherics don’t extend far enough to make the serviceable script or capable cast attain the air of tragic fatalism grasped for a little too explicitly toward the end. These characters just don’t have that kind of “Donnie Brasco”-esque depth, despite Cote’s attempts to provide poignance in Lance’s fatherly interest in talented but ignored local-bar performer Anna or Gregor’s devotion to pastry-baker wife Adalina (Lina Roessler).
When Gregor tells Lance, “You bring death wherever you go,” we realize these figures have been intended to carry more weight of cosmic predestination than the film manages to imbue them with. Still, “Tainted” pulls off its sober tone enough that we accept most of these people won’t be able to escape the fate their criminality dooms them to — as well as those unfortunate innocents who stray into the same drainward pull of violence.