Trade

Reviewed by Tim Grierson

Rarely has a film in recent memory mishandled its honorable intentions with such ill-conceived execution as Trade, a drama about the underground U.S. sex trade.

The subject matter remains gripping, but it deserves a more morally trenchant film than the one on display here. An indigestible combination of the gritty style of Amores Perros and the overlapping-character milieu of works like Traffic, this effort by German director Marco Kreuzpaintner (Summer Storm) fails on every level: as an expos into the world of sex traffickers, as a commentary on Americas ongoing dispute about illegal immigration, as a seedy thriller, and as a portrait of the children whose innocence is violently violated by this crime.

Adriana (Paulina Gaitan), 13, and her brother Jorge (Cesar Ramos), 17, live in Mexico City in relative poverty. Jorge supports himself by robbing unsuspecting tourists, but his life becomes exponentially more stressful when his adoring sister is kidnapped by a group of sex traffickers who plan on offering her virginity online to the highest bidder. Tracking the kidnappers leads Jorge over the border into the United States where he meets Ray (Kevin Kline), a Texas policeman who sympathizes with his plight. Soon, Ray and Jorge team up, driving to New Jersey to find the kidnappers headquarters and to rescue Adriana.

Unaware that her brother is hot on her trail, Adriana tries to stay strong while being terrorized by the kidnappers cruel behavior. She befriends Veronica (Alicja Bachleda), a young Polish woman who has also been captured by these thugs. The two women are being shepherded to their fate by Manuelo (Marco Perez), a tough-talking hood who deep down is conflicted by his work in the sex trade. His apprehension only increases on their road trip to New Jersey as he begins to care for Adriana and Veronica and question his involvement in their abduction and eventual sale.

Though perhaps its commendable that Trade aspires to be more than a dreary tragedy-of-the-week cable movie, Kreuzpaintner and his screenwriter Jose Rivera (working from a New York Times Magazine investigative piece by reporter Peter Landesman) fail to come up with a successful alternative to the more traditional docudrama strategy. Instead, Kreuzpaintner (in his American debut) attempts to make a white-knuckled crime thriller with a lot of hand-held camera and oversaturated images courtesy of cinematographer Daniel Gottschalk. Jorges chase from Mexico into the United States includes several suspense sequences that feel needlessly showy, especially in light of the despairing subject of the film.

Also oddly showy is Kreuzpaintners treatment of the kidnappers and their victims. The filmmaker stages several of the scenes almost as if they were better suited for a torture-porn horror film, emphasizing the kidnappers leering demeanor and lingering over their casual cruelty in such a way that it nearly fetishizes their abhorrent behavior. While clearly Trade wants us to be sickened by these men, the scenes instead lose any shred of reality and become too theatrical and sleazy.

As the film progresses, the captives have opportunities to escape, but Kreuzpaintner approaches these moments extremely manipulatively, teasing the audience into believing they have a legitimate shot at freedom but then allowing them to be recaptured thanks to the womens unbelievably foolish behavior. Though the story is based on journalistic reporting, Trade never presents a plausible look into this dangerous underground phenomenon, which critically undercuts any sense of horror at what the women must endure during their imprisonment.

Character development is also woefully inadequate, especially in terms of Rays motivations for getting involved. Kline has always given his dramatic characters a quiet sense of decency and thoughtfulness, but some of the clichd moments in Riveras screenplay cause him to give one of his least credible performances. Trade narrowly conceives Ray as a flawed man with a painful secret, one the movie hints at in trite ways until the inevitable second-act monologue in which he unburdens his soul to Jorge.

Additionally, the script conceives Ray and Jorge as unlikely partners working together to find Adriana, sparring over differences in generations and ethnicities, but their eventual friendship is achieved in such forced ways that it never feels authentic. Jorge becomes a spokesman for minority rights in America while Ray is a stand-in for U.S. callousness, and the performances never rise above the tediously symbolic.

None of the young actors embarrass themselves, but their roles are an underdeveloped as their adult counterparts. As the oldest of the group, Bachleda is called upon to emote more, but her actions are so incongruous that its difficult for the actress to play them with conviction.

According to some estimates, almost a million people a year are trafficked throughout the world, mostly for sexual exploitation. Trade wants to shock us by demonstrating how much of this activity occurs right here in the United States, but, sadly, the films biggest shock is its own incompetence.

Credits

Running time: 119 minutes

Director: Marco Kreuzpaintner
Production companies: Centropolis Entertainment, VIP Medienfond 4
US distribution: Roadside Attractions
Executive producers: Ashok Amritraj, Robert Leger, Tom Ortenberg, Michael Wimer, Nick Hamson, Peter Landesman, Lars Sylvest
Producers: Roland Emmerich, Rosilyn Heller
Screenplay: Jose Rivera
(story by Peter Landesman and Rivera, based on the New York Times Magazine article The Girls Next Door by Landesman)
Cinematography: Daniel Gottschalk
Editor: Hansjorg Weissbrich
Production design: Bernt Capra
Music: Jacobo Lieberman, Leonardo Heiblum

Cast

Ray (Kevin Kline)
Jorge (Cesar Ramos)
Veronica (Alicja Bachleda)
Adriana (Paulina Gaitan)
Manuelo (Marco Perez)