The sex slave trade is real. It goes on today, not only south of the border in Mexico and Latin America, seen in films like Man on Fire as lawless hellholes, but in the area where I live, in the north New Jersey neighborhoods around Newark, where in 2002 police raided a Plainfield house and found four teenaged Mexicanas, prisoners of traffickers, forced into prostitution for their captors’ profit.
This incident was highlighted in a 2004 article for New York Times Magazine, “The Girls Next Door” by Peter Landesman. Although the article has become a flashpoint for controversy and its credibility called into question, “The Girls Next Door” attracted the attention of Hollywood producer Rosilyn Heller. Publicity materials note that Heller met Landesman through feminist icon Gloria Steinem, Heller’s “friend and producing partner.” (True: According to IMDb.com, Steinem and Heller co-produced the 1993 TV movie Better Off Dead.)
Then Heller called another “producing partner”: Roland Emmerich, schlockmeister producer of The Patriot, Godzilla and Independence Day. Emmerich bought film rights to “The Girls Next Door,” and recruited Mexican screenwriter Jose Rivera (Che Guevara biopic The Motorcycle Diaries) and young German director Marco Kreuzpaintner (“coming-out” comedy–drama Summer Storm).
The result is somewhat schizophrenic film: part hard-hitting, socially aware procedural about the abduction and trafficking of young women and girls through Mexico into the U.S.; part heart-pumping action/buddy/road–movie about a hooligan-turned-hero who tracks his abducted sister for thousands of miles from Mexico to New Jersey with the help of a lone cop with a personal stake in the trafficking racket.
The victims are a 12-year-old Latina named Adriana (Paulina Gaitan) who is snatched from the streets of Mexico City while riding her bicycle, and Veronica (Alicja Bachleda), a young Polish woman who believes that she has a legitimate job lined up, but whose suspicions are raised when her recruiters confiscate her passport at the airport. Veronica is summarily beaten and raped by her abducters in a kind of ritual subjugation initiation. Later, in a scenario taken directly from Landesman’s article, Adriana is led to a roadside field of reeds, into a sort of warren of paths and cave-like rooms, where victims are forced to perform sex acts on men shuttled in by van. However, Adriana’s virginity is preserved to be auctioned off for top dollar on the Internet.
The heroes are Adriana’s 17-year-old brother Jorge (Cesar Ramos), a street thug who robs gringos estúpidos with his posse by luring them into back alleys with promises of hookers and sex for sale, and Ray (Kevin Kline), an emotionally distant Texas cop haunted by a past sin and a tragic connection to the world of trafficking. Jorge’s and Ray’s paths cross at a Mexican stash house where Adriana and Veronica were briefly held, and Jorge stows away in Ray’s trunk to get into the U.S., where an underworld contact has told him his sister will likely be auctioned off in New Jersey.
The contrast between the brutality of the girls’ hellish journey and the lightweight heroics of the guys’ dogged pursuit feels dissonant and not a little exploitative. Moments of levity between Ray and Jorge, such as Jorge complaining about Ray’s music — a hoary cliché when Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker did it in the original Rush Hour — seem wincingly out of place. Granted, humor crops up in even the grimmest situations, but to work it would have to be more organic to the situation, not this kind of Hollywood boilerplate.
It reminds me a little of the movie-in-a-movie in Robert Altman’s The Player, Habeus Corpus, which starts as a dark little film with an uncompromisingly cynical finale, but ultimately morphs into a typical Hollywood blockbuster with a tacked-on action-packed climax and happy ending. Whether or not this corresponds in any way to the history of the screenplay for Trade, the final product seems the wrong treatment for the material. Again, a story like this can have a happy ending — just not the wrong kind of happy ending.
A streak of Catholic piety runs through the film, with its Latino context. Veronica notices that Adriana wears a holy medal of the Virgin Mary and asks if she prays to the Virgin; Adriana expresses faith in Mary’s protection. Later, in a wrenching moment, Adriana prays to Jesus before a San Damiano crucifix on the wall over the bed at the Jersey base of operations to which she has been brought, begging Him to at least ensure that she is bought by someone kind.
Such a juxtaposition of the sacred and the obscene — the dissonant presence of the Syian-style icon in this den of iniquity — is at least as old as The Godfather, in which decadent cultural Catholicism coexisted with remorseless racketeering. In Trade the contradiction is embodied in Manuelo (Marco Perez), a flunky who pauses at the sight of a large cross to make the sign of the cross while hustling captives on a forced march across the U.S.–Mexican border.
Later, a desperate character strikes at Manuelo’s religiosity with a implicit threat of heavenly justice in a line that the studio publicity department most unwisely cribbed for the movie’s tagline, “You’ll Pay For This.” In an even more crucial scene, the conflict of belief and self-interest comes to a head in a twist that may or may not be credible, but is definitely what would happen in a movie like this.
A closing title states that the CIA estimates that 50,000 to 100,000 victims of human trafficking are brought into the United States each year specifically as sex slaves. The number is so horrific it seems hard to credit — and, indeed, it’s unclear where the figure comes from. It’s strikingly different from the number in Landesman’s “The Girls Next Door,” which cites a 2003 CIA estimate that puts the figure of human trafficking into the U.S. (not just sex slaves, but all victims) at 18,000 to 20,000 — only 18%–40% of the number claimed just for sex slaves in Trade. Further confusing matters, film publicity materials state that “Landesman estimates” the figure to be 100,000 “or more.”
In a blistering series of editorials questioning the credibility of Landesman’s article, Slant.com editor Jack Shafer reveals that an earlier CIA estimate from 2002 did put the figure as high as 50,000 (though not, apparently, 50,000 to 100,000, let alone 100,000 “or more”). Only a year later, though, the CIA revised its estimate to the much lower 18,000 to 20,000. Landesman’s article cites the lower figure; why does the film, based on the article, use and even inflate the higher number?
The sensationalism is unfortunate in part because it injects skepticism into what is a real and horrific crime. After seeing Trade, I called the director of perhaps the largest human trafficking rescue organization on the east coast, Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Newark’s Refugee Resettlement and Human Trafficking. I learned that the Newark office has aided in the rescue of over 50 victims of human trafficking in the last 18 to 24 months. Apart from one case involving over a dozen victims from Africa who were working in a hair salon, all the rest — over 40 victims — were being held as sex slaves.
Catholic Charities corroborated a number of details envisioned in the film, describing how victims were lured with promises of work or kidnapped in some South American or African country, how they were raped by their captors before being farmed out to others, how they changed hands from country to country until arriving in the U.S.
At the same time, the program director stated the obvious: No one really has any idea of the scope of the problem, because it’s such a hidden crime. If Kreuzpaintner’s film raises awareness of this hidden crime, that’s all to the good. But that’s not enough. Trade needed to be the United 93 of the human trafficking crisis. It’s closer to being the World Trade Center.
Well-crafted but improbable action set pieces cast the 56-year-old Neeson as an essentially indomitable force taking on and prevailing against almost any number of gun-toting assailants — like Jason Bourne, Bryan combines boundless resourcefulness with essentially indomitable physical prowess — but the film’s emotional force rests on the comparatively persuasive setup.
It’s a movie in which every slimeball Erica encounters menaces her with remorseless, repulsive sadism — there’s never anyone who just has a lewd comment, say, or even just wants to steal her purse. Everyone wants to bludgeon or shoot her, mutilate and molest her, enslave her, run her over, what have you.
"In the Church they say to forgive," one character observes dubiously. But in Creasy’s book, to forgive is divine, to mutilate and butcher human. "Forgiveness is between them and God," he says, conveniently overlooking the relevant biblical injunctions even though we know he can quote chapter and verse when he wants to. "My job is to arrange the meeting." We know we should agree with Creasy, because his murderous rampage is scored by a cool rock soundtrack and sanctified by a mother’s kiss. That’s got to be righteous.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.