Noble intentions are derailed by deeply confused execution in writer-director Deon Taylor’s “Traffik,” which attempts to marry cheap genre thrills with an unflinching depiction of the horrors of international sex trafficking, only to cheapen the latter and cast a grimy pall over the former. The always ace camerawork of Dante Spinotti and reliably solid performances from Paula Patton and Omar Epps help give the film a professional sheen, but “Traffik’s” fumbling jumble of tones and motivations proves clumsy at best, and distasteful at worst.
After an ominous intro in which a nameless young woman is abducted from a nightclub and chained up in a flatbed truck, the film zeroes in on Sacramento newspaper reporter Brea (Paula Patton) on the eve of what seems a less than promising birthday weekend. A story she’s been slowly working on for months has just been scooped by a coworker, and a subsequent clash with her editor (William Fichtner) leaves her unsure if she’ll still have a job come Monday. (Her editor’s insistence that Brea file in a timely manner, write pieces that are to the point, and focus on breaking important news are presented as hissable nitpicks, which more or less sums up the film’s view of journalism.)
Later that night, she has an awkward dinner with her boyfriend John (Epps) as well as his childhood friend Darren (Laz Alonso) and Darren’s girlfriend Malia (Roselyn Sanchez). As we learn through unrelenting barrages of expositional dialogue here and in the scenes that quickly follow, John is an auto mechanic who is busy building up courage to ask Brea to marry him, though he’s insecure about his relatively unglamorous job, and Brea is unsure if she’s ready to commit. Darren is an obnoxious, motor-mouthed sports agent with a drug problem, and his workaholic tendencies have left Malia feeling neglected – not to mention the fact that she has a secret romantic history with John. Roughly a quarter of this information will have any bearing at all on what comes next.
What is important, however, is that John has built an eye-catching hot rod for Brea’s birthday, and whisks her off for a weekend getaway at a spectacular mansion retreat in the woods, courtesy of Darren’s agency connections. On the way, they stop at one of those rural gas stations so beloved by horror filmmakers, and each have unsettling encounters. As Brea heads inside, John is accosted by a trio of gnarly white bikers, who move from casual conversation to racial microaggressions to all-out aggression. Meanwhile, Brea meets a troubled-looking woman (Dawn Olivieri) in the bathroom, who discretely slips a satellite phone into Brea’s bag before being hustled away by another brutish biker.
This is the film’s best-executed sequence, infusing a familiar setup with some very Trump-era racial menace, although Taylor squanders some of the mounting unease by following the scene with a rote car chase, and Brea and John make an offputtingly fast transition from this traumatic run-in into some poolside romance back at the house. Then Darren and Malia drop by unexpectedly, Brea finds the phone, and the foursome make a shocking discovery once they figure out the password: A catalog of photos of beaten-up, scantily-clad women, along with a cache of foreign phone numbers. The film whipsaws wildly between tones in this stretch, toggling between alluring closeups of Patton cavorting in a luminous infinity pool, unnecessary drama and comic relief provided by the increasingly intolerable Darren, and disturbing imagery of abused women.
After dragging out this setup for far longer than expected, the film finally kicks into gear as the biker gang and their malevolent British kingpin (Luke Goss) arrive to retrieve the phone, eventually chasing Brea and John through the house and the surrounding woods, aided by some excruciatingly dumb decisions from our heroes. The film’s off-and-on social advocacy becomes abruptly dominant in the final act, as Taylor offers scene after scene depicting the terror of human trafficking, and a film that had previously been impossible to take seriously suddenly starts taking itself very seriously indeed. There’s no reason to doubt the director’s intentions here, however inelegantly he sometimes announces them – his use of Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit” is certainly a bold stroke – but the film’s late descent into such deep, abrasive unpleasantness feels entirely unearned after the b-movie schlock that had dominated the earlygoing. Closing title cards reveal some alarming statistics about human trafficking in the U.S., and “Traffik’s” heart certainly seems to be in the right place; it’s a shame so little else is.