June 23, 2024

Bitconned 2024 Movie Review

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Bitconned 2024 Movie Review

You’re gonna hate Ray Trapani. We meet him as he stands in front of a series of mirrors, getting fitted for a tailored suit. He says he doesn’t mind being looked at as a criminal, because his whole life, he wanted to be one. He also says he earned $32 million “on paper,” but a few hundred million “in reality.” You can almost smell the grease on the guy, and he’s so smarmy, you wonder if it’s an actor playing him or really him. (Note: It’s really him.) Then we meet Nathaniel Popper, a New York Times reporter who started sniffing out fraud amidst the cryptocurrency boom in 2017, which was so new and so alarmingly unregulated at the time, scammers feasted like gators in a cattle pen. A little later, we’ll meet Jacob Rensel, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan who admits he wanted to make some quick, easy money in the crypto market, pointing at his paltry military-career salary as his main motivation.

And so hereby established are the crook, the investigator and the victim, but we’re going to spend more time with the crook, because Trapani oozes sleazy charisma from every pore. He speaks bluntly about himself, his background and his motivations, and so openly admits that he’s a slippery slickster, you probably shouldn’t believe a single damn word he says. His family is Something Else: His late grandfather apparently was a mob boss; his grandmother laughs when she says she was more of a gangster than her husband, and that he earned his money in “something to do with the elevator business”; Trapani’s mother sort of confirms her dad’s line of work, saying she saw cases full of cash pass through the house. Trapani idolized his grandfather, so cue some of Trapani’s former friends trashing him: He was a kid who adopted a phony “street” persona despite being raised in sunny Atlantic Beach, Florida. As a teen, he was an oxy addict who sold the drug by filling phony prescriptions; when he got busted, he turned in his drug-dealing partners to reduce the charges against him, and yes, you can consider that foreshadowing for the rest of this story. “Ray is a piece of shit,” goes one of those former partners, and we might just end up believing him.

Trapani’s grandfather and other family members ended up investing in his first legitimate business, a rental service for high-end sports cars he started with partner Sohrab Sharma. The endeavor was successful, but Trapani and Sharma sank it by indulging luxurious lifestyles, spending way more than they were earning. At this point, we might empathize with Trapani a little bit as he openly shares how he attempted suicide when the business went underwater, which is probably true, but can we really trust anything he says?

Standing in the wreckage of their first crash-and-burn, Trapani and Sharma got a whiff of the crypto boom, and came up with an idea that sounds somewhat revolutionary: A crypto debit card that allows people to spend their Bitcoins wherever Visa transactions are accepted. They called the company Centra Tech. But instead of building something legit, they took every cheap-ass, ludicrously transparent shortcut they could: Creating a professional-looking website, concocting phone LinkedIn profiles saying they were Harvard grads, creating a phony CEO by Googling “old white guy” and stealing a random photo, etc.

And of course, what with one thing and another, internet randos threw millions of dollars in investment money at Centra. Sharma and Trapani rented fancy office space and hired 50 employees, who likely didn’t realize the company was on such a shaky foundation it made a house of cards look like Helm’s Deep. It’s the kind of situation that draws in people like Rensel, honest types lured in by a risky chance to make a quick buck – and people like Popper, looking to whack-a-mole at least one major player among the god-knows-how-many crypto scammers out there. But has anybody noticed that Trapani isn’t being interviewed inside a correctional facility? Hmm, I say, hmm.

For better or worse, Bitconned is a let-him-hang-himself-with-his-own-words-type doc that uses Trapani’s first-person testimony as the primary component of the narrative. But be thankful Topper, Rensel and a few other more credible talking heads are here to counter some of that testimony; one player here – a former male stripper who stood in as Centra’s CFO, and yes, you may be amused by that – repeatedly pops up to interject that Trapani’s words should be taken with a grain of salt, because Trapani, who admits to struggling with addiction, was regularly swallowing handfuls of Xanax throughout this sordid saga. And you may heretofore consider Trapani to be a classic literary device: The Unreliable Narrator.

More accurately, he’s The Unreliable Narrator Who Got Away With It. I don’t think that’s a spoiler – you can easily find the news stories about Centra’s downfall, and Storkel makes it clear that there’s no bracelet around Trapani’s ankle in the opening scene, and we never see him in any type of correctional facility. One of the more fascinating elements of the film is Storkel’s access to Trapani, who doesn’t share why he agreed to participate. That leaves us to speculate and armchair-psychoanalyze the guy, and assume it’s an opportunity for him to feed his ego and smirk about his various malfeasances. This isn’t the portrait of a man who’s changed or been rehabilitated – in the closing moments, he says everything he does is “shady” – and therefore is an indictment of a justice system that uses and rewards snitches who help prosecutors get a conviction. Trapani admits he has a lack of empathy for other humans, and says he’s working on that, which is a prime example of how one sentence out of his mouth prompts us to simultaneously believe him and think he’s utterly full of shit.

But boy, will you love to hate Trapani. Storkel’s approach and visual style are entertaining, taking a lighter, occasionally humorous approach to true crime, but never becoming flippant or dismissive. (We also get halfway through the movie before Storkel interviews a lawyer, which might be a new record for an era in which attorney talking heads are as foundational to documentaries as seeds are to farming operations.) Bitconned gives equal diligence to the micro-story of Trapani’s scheming and the macro-story of crypto treachery, adding up to a saga that’s so stinking American it might make you nauseous. You’ll be torn between the idea of exposing Trapani and his ilk for the scumwads they are, and wondering if Storkel should’ve ever put the guy on camera in the first place. Either way, we feel something – a cocktail of outrage and bemusement – and that’s the mark of a pretty damn good documentary.

Bitconned 2024 Movie Review