MOVIE REVIEW: If not enjoyable, ‘Traffik’ packs an emotional punch

TRAFFIK (R) 3 out of 4 stars

The second human trafficking movie of the week, “Traffik” is less subtle and not quite as focused as “You Were Never Really Here,” yet is equally disturbing. In the U.S. alone, there are 1.9 million women being trafficked and globally over 21 million victims, generating in excess of $150 billion annually, according to the film.

The vast majority of these enslaved people are white women, although their captors will snare anyone of any race, age or gender in order to satisfy differing tastes in depravity. “You Were Never Really Here” concerns itself with someone who rescues victims after the fact. “Traffik” writer/director Deon Taylor delves into the theft of humanity as it happens and the indifferent, cartel-like mentality of those in charge of it all.

Multi-racial actress Paula Patton stars as Brea, a struggling and scrappy reporter in Sacramento trying to impress her editor, Waynewright (William Fichtner), who is more interested in stories of the topical/lurid nature than those of human interest. Patton’s and Brea’s multi-racial background is mentioned here because it plays into the plot down the line.

Brea is clearly adored by John (Omar Epps), a man of undetermined means who proves his love for her by rebuilding her favorite classic muscle car by hand just because. John is in heavy-duty “woo” mode and gets Brea to go on a weekend trip to a secluded hideaway secured by John’s “friend” Darren (Laz Alonso). Darren is a, quote, “friend” because he’s a self-important type who is completely lacking in social graces — a point not lost on his soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend, Malia (Roselyn Sanchez).

In any other movie, the brusque and annoying Darren would be the villain, and it is to Taylor’s credit that he is eventually eclipsed by Red (Luke Goss), an initially charming Englishman Brea meets at a gas station/convenience store. It is at this same place where Brea crosses paths with a woman appearing to be a substance abuser afraid for her life. Without detection, the woman slips her phone into Brea’s purse, and the main thrust of the story then takes off in earnest.

Taylor was wise to make John and Darren, if not expendable, background characters with flair. Each is flawed in vastly different ways, yet each plays a crucial role in the film’s second half, and this is where Taylor deserves great credit. Both Brea and Malia have male partners in their lives, but neither is invulnerable from outside forces and, thus, cannot be fully protected.

“Traffik” loses part of its considerable grip at the start of the third act when the narrative slips into rote “cat vs. mouse” chase scenarios, which, while frequently gripping, do little to distinguish the film from other, mostly generic crime thrillers. Picking up the considerable slack during this stretch is Missi Pyle (“Captain Fantastic,” “Gone Girl”) as Sally Marnes, a law enforcement officer seen only briefly in the opening act.

With her furrowed brow and sanpaku eyes, Pyle imparts great menace without uttering a word and Taylor provides her a bare minimum of dialogue, all of it landing with considerable force. Easily the most interesting character in the movie, Marnes’ mixed motives lend the narrative some much needed friction and mystery.

As with “You Were Never Really Here,” “Traffik” is not something to be enjoyed but rather appreciated and endured. If these two productions manage to raise awareness of trafficking and save just one woman from falling through the cracks, witnessing their combined terror will be well worth it.

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