Using the very real, truly tragic plight of human trafficking victims as fodder for a home-invasion thriller sounds problematic in concept. It would be easy to make this material exploitative and offensive, yet writer-director Deon Taylor (in a major step forward from his previous effort, 2016's cringe-inducing "The Purge" spoof "Meet the Blacks") succeeds most of the time by placing appropriate sobering weight on the implications of its subject matter. He is aided by Paula Patton's (2013's "Disconnect
") engagingly all-in lead performance and Dante Spinotti's (2018's "Ant-Man and the Wasp
") exquisitely textured cinematography, turning a picturesque, warmly lit dream getaway into a brooding, shadowy, fog-dappled nightmare.
After a dust-up with her stern boss (William Fichtner) leaves her doubting she still has a job, Sacramento Post
journalist Brea (Paula Patton) hopes a surprise birthday weekend into the California mountains with boyfriend John (Omar Epps) will be just what she needs to get her mind off her career worries. Instead, things go from bad to worse following a contentious stop at a gas station that leaves John nearly getting into a fight with a group of bikers and Brea encountering a troubled woman (Dawn Olivieri) in the restroom who seems to be trying to reach out for help. They attempt to brush off these encountersan easy proposition once they reach the gorgeous modern home where they are stayingbut the discovery of a mysterious satellite phone in Brea's bag suddenly thrusts the couple and their friends, the overbearing Darren (Laz Alonso) and disrespected girlfriend Malia (Roselyn Sanchez), into a fight for survival against a gang of human traffickers out to retrieve the evidence Brea now holds in her possession.
"Traffik" has a way of instantly grabbing its audience and pulling them into Brea's world, not only in regard to her professional woes and aspirations but also in her relationship with John, who is still mustering the courage to propose to her. They are an immensely likable couple, singing along to Earth, Wind & Fire's "September" in Brea's new gifta car mechanic John built for heras they travel toward their fateful destiny. When things begin to go seriously wrong, it stings. Tension is expertly revved as a cat-and-mouse game ensues, and while certain turns of the plot are a little too convenient and easily predicted, the script always plays fair and treats viewers with respect.
By not abruptly cutting to closing credits when the immediate conflict is wrapped upa too-regular failure of thrillers of this sortand instead following Brea for a few beats longer to glimpse what her future may hold, the film reveals itself to be about more than base-level thrills. Writer-director Deon Taylor cares about his resourceful protagonist and the fight she has left in her, just as he uses and occasionally subverts mainstream genre conventions as a means of casting much-needed light on the unthinkable crimes of human trafficking. Ending on topsy-turvy shots of literal auto traffic in a world turned upside-down is a potent finishing flourish. Even if, in form, "Traffik" is little more than a crowd-pleasing B-movie with ultra-slick production values, it is an undeniably arresting one with a deeper purpose beyond its polished surface.