2017, R, 104 min. Directed by Will Wallace. Starring Elisabeth Röhm, Ashley Judd, Sean Patrick Flanery, Kelly Washington, Jessica Obilom, Alpa Banker, Matt Doran.
REVIEWED By Nguyen Le, Fri., Oct. 6, 2017
The landscape’s vastness is ripe for Texas being a hotspot for human trafficking, a fact that three young girls – skittish Californian Sara (Washington), Nigerian mother Mali (Obilum), and aspiring Indian college student Amba (Banker) – regrettably find out first-hand in Trafficked. Ending up in a brothel by various nefarious means, they are told by their captors that they must “service” 500 clients before they are free to go. There are many close-to-home jolts in Trafficked, most potent among them is the subject matter being an actual, prevalent plague right here in the Lone Star State.
Despite its depraved nature, human trafficking is a profitable industry, and as a result, many people in many places are involved. Actor-turned-director Will Wallace (he was the Architect in The Tree of Life) makes an admirable effort to depict the business’ global roots and reaches, having the camera showing different countries, methods of transportation, and faces owning different tongues. The details reflect a successful translation of the expansive research carried out by Harvard professor Siddharth Kara, an expert on modern slavery, who wrote this screenplay using his trilogy of books on the subject as inspiration.
But even with that foundation, Trafficked keeps undermining its tangible atmosphere and unflinching showcase of mistreatment with inconsistent production values that become increasingly distracting. Shots don’t match up, the sound effects come from a stock soundtrack of punching noises, and the fisticuffs seem to have been staged by mimes. Acting is also uneven: The three leads are competent – even in the rote flashback sequences that explore their pre-Texas brothel lives – but whenever an antagonist invariably shows up, it is hammy to the point of parody. On top of that, since the villains are played by notable faces – Kiss the Girls’ Judd as a deceitful social worker, Boondock Saints’ Flanery as the brutish brothel leader, and The Matrix’s Doran as a Gameboy-loving henchman. One wonders how their lives are as of late. (Earlier this month, Judd was the flip side to her character here, being the first to reveal Harvey Weinstein’s sexual assault crimes).
Committing the gravest fault, however, is screenwriter Kara. Characterization and dialogue come across as hackneyed. Perhaps by asking help from his colleagues in the visual arts’ department, Kara and Wallace could have given the film the necessary amateur-repelling polish and a more affecting victims-focused center. Had the latter been there, perhaps the tacked-on drug cartel subplot that rounds out the third act, with a shoddily filmed gunfight, could have been excised. For such an out-of-place element to be there, proves Trafficked doesn’t know what its objective is: a frank inspection of a global epidemic, or darkness-tinged entertainment. Aiming for both makes Trafficked a half-hearted attempt that becomes neither.