If you got all your crime news from the movies, you’d probably wonder how any of us survive the mass murdering drug cartels, avoid becoming a serial killer’s prey or protect our teenage girls from being abducted into sexual slavery.
Human trafficking is both a Hollywood cause and a horrific yet titillating subject for a thriller. Somebody’s going to be “Taken,” where this “Priceless” child will end up in the “Trade.” Half a dozen movies on this theme come out every year.
Little separates “Trafficked,” a low-budget entry in the field, from the pack, save for the presence of some big names in supporting roles in the cast. It’s an ambitious, multi-national peek at the different paths young women from Nigeria, India and California find themselves trapped in a brothel in Texas.
Mali (Jessica Obilum) tells how her mother compared prostitution to farming — “A man” must be endured for a few minutes, whereas “planting sweet potatoes takes all day, in the burning sun.”
Amba (Alpa Banker) and her pal are comparing notes about the colleges in America that are getting them out of New Delhi . Children of affluence, they cross the wrong punk, are assaulted and Amba finds herself drugged and dragged across the world.
“Two planes, three trucks, one speedboat and one wooden rowboat” later, she’s stuck “owing” the creep in charge, Simon (Sean Patrick Flanery) “500 men” before she’ll be let go.
Anne Archer plays the nun running a group home for orphans in rural California, where Sara (Kelly Washington) is celebrating her 18th birthday. A helpful social worker (Ashley Judd) is there for the party, and to whisk Sara away to a life working on cruise ships. Not really.
All three endure beatings and witness murders on their journeys, but are wholly reassured when one and all comfort them with “It’s just business, honey.” Each is treated like chattel, man-handled, brutalized and killed if they don’t heed the threats.
There is no bystander who will see their plight and rescue them, no relative tracking them down, no help from corrupt border country law enforcement (Patrick Duffy plays the Texas Rangers honcho totally in on the scam).
Mali counsels “Don’t think about who you used to be…You lie back and survive.”
But with drug cartels partnered in an unholy girls for guns for drugs triangle trade, even the youngest among them has to know that promises of release are empty. They either escape or die.
The script is by Siddharth Kara, a Harvard academic who is Director of the Program on Human Trafficking and Modern Slavery at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. So whatever the screenplay lacks in originality, suspense or action beat plausibility, it has that “This sort of thing really happens” authority about it.
The rarer than rare good lines are given to the most interesting of the victims, Mali.
Actor turned producer and now director Will Wallace didn’t get lessons on pacing, or learned the wrong lessons from the likes of Terrence Malick, whom he’s worked with. The plot, for all its tried and true conventions, has eye-rolling leaps in logic and sort of lumbers between star cameos until we reach a far-fetched if generic conclusion.
All manner of well-intentioned pictures are being made on this awful subject, faith-based movies to simple Liam Neeson thrillers. But whatever its worthiness as a cause worth wiping out, you’ve got to bring something new to the table to make your movie stand out. And casting Anne Archer as a nun, Ashley Judd and Patrick Duffy as villains and Efren Ramirez of “Napoleon Dynamite” as a sympathetic Gypsy bartender in the brothel isn’t it.
MPAA Rating: R for disturbing violent content including sexual assaults, language, and some drug use
Cast: Kelly Washington, Jessica Obilum, Alpa Banker, Ashley Judd, Anne Archer, Patrick Duffy
Credits: Directed by Will Wallace, script by Siddharth Kara. An Epic release.
Running time: 1:39