It could be easy to come to the conclusion that Traffik is a morally reprehensible movie that exploits the real-life horrors of sex trafficking in service to a flippant mainstream thriller. Yet, there doesn’t seem to be any insidious motivation behind writer/director Deon Taylor’s vision for his film, no purposeful undermining of the real impact of sex slavery by coating it in a veneer similar to what can modestly be described as a highly eroticized, run-off-the-mill basic cable home invasion thriller. It’s misguided, not nefarious.
It’s obvious that Taylor truly wanted to create awareness for the horrors of human trafficking, not only evidenced by the on-screen text that at the end of the film that lays out some distressing numbers, but also by the heavy-handed connections he makes between modern sex slavery and the slavery of Africans. It’s obvious too that he wanted to produce a glossy, familiar thriller, one whose borderline-pervasive male gaze is constantly fixated on Paula Patton’s naked or scantily dressed body via slithering tracking shots and close-ups.
Traffik could have worked as a satisfying genre exercise were it not so bluntly invested in integrating such a delicate subject. Anyone who’s seen their share of home invasion movies can easily predict every single plot point pretty much right after the opening credits. Attractive couple John (Omar Epps) and Brea (Patton) drive to a secluded dream home for a quick vacation, during which John plans to finally pop the question. After an awkward interaction with central casting racists at a gas station, and a ridiculously unnecessary car chase, the two make it to the house only to discover that a girl Brea met at the station left her phone in her purse.
Brea and John unlock the purse to find that it belongs to sex traffickers, and wouldn’t you know it, the traffickers themselves, led by Generic English Villain (Luke Goss), immediately surround the home, threatening to kill them if they don’t get the phone back. From this point on, every single beat is practically preordained: Our central couple outsmarts the criminals, killing a bunch of them in the process. Give Traffik this much credit: At least it doesn’t include the scene where the bad guy gets so frustrated with his plans going awry that he kills one of his own men.
Once we enter Traffik’s third act, Deon Taylor switches into an attempt to artfully convey trafficking as good ole-fashioned slavery, complete with an egregiously atonal use of the song “Strange Fruit.” Of course there’s a twist about a character we assumed to be the good guy turning out to be bad. It’s not hard to predict this if you consider just how long it takes for a character to show up after they’re called. So, problem number one in the mission to create a dramatically potent and serious examination of sex trafficking: The first two-thirds of the film is entirely consumed by a standard home invasion flick where the gang of bad guys traps our innocent protagonists in their home because they want a Mcguffin thingy.
It’s too bad how basic and misguided Traffik is, considering that Dante Spinotti’s cinematography is genuinely haunting and claustrophobic at times. When the criminals surround the house, Spinotti uses their headlights to create a beautiful contrast between stark lights and darks straight out of a well-executed horror movie. Patton and Epps also show some credible chemistry to get us to invest a bit into these characters. Patton especially gives it her all, creating a brave and passionate performance that the material certainly doesn’t deserve, especially considering the undeniable hypocrisy of a movie that attempts to demonize the concept of treating women like they’re pieces of meat while also treating its star as if she’s a piece of meat. Taylor isn’t adept enough with his material to have it both ways.
Director: Deon Taylor
Writter: Deon Taylor
Starring: Paula Patton, Omar Epps, Luke Goss, Missi Pyle, Roselyn Sanchez, Laz Alonso, William Fichtner, Dawn Olivieri
Release Date: April 20, 2018