Siege films are often driven by a blunt understanding of classist politics, usually pivoting on protagonists hiding in a rarefied place that the villains desperately seek to breach. There can be a sense of catharsis to such bluntness, as these films suggest a clearing of the euphemistic air to reveal what truly troubles us. For the duration of its first act, Deon Taylor’s Traffik prepares the audience for a confrontation that explodes contemporary racial and gender tensions. But Taylor seems uncomfortable with the escalating relentlessness of a siege film, eventually splitting Traffik off into a variety of other tangents and genres, diluting the potent subtext at the film’s center.
The film initially suggests a low-rent blend of a Roman Polanski class parable with a relationship drama in the key of Malcolm D. Lee. Taylor’s direction isn’t nearly as accomplished as the work of those men, but he competently establishes an atmosphere of debauched entitlement. Brea (Paula Patton) is a reporter for a Sacramento newspaper who’s lectured for her pretentiousness by her editor (William Fichtner). Rather than quickly nailing down a story, Brea nurtures her articles for months, attempting to inform them with elaborately literate metaphors—an unconvincing plot point in our instant-news age that’s itself a metaphor for Brea’s myopia. Brea loses her job, though she enjoys the support of a wealthy infrastructure. Her boyfriend, John (Omar Epps), is about to propose to her, whisking Brea off to a getaway mansion that’s owned by John’s wealthy sports agent friend, Darren (Laz Alonso).
Taylor proficiently drops the film’s portentous tumblers into place. At a gas station not far from the getaway spot, Brea sees a strung-out woman who’s clearly in an abusive relationship with a burly biker. Though Brea considers herself a socially conscious crusader, she does nothing to help this woman—as most of us wouldn’t. Outside the gas station, another biker taunts John about his impressive muscle car and the “piece of ass” who’s with him and asks John if he’s a ballplayer. This question appears to be racially coded—directed by a resentful white man toward gorgeous and affluent people of color. (Tellingly and dubiously, “Strange Fruit,” the legendary protest song about the lynching of African-Americans, is later played on the soundtrack.)
John and Brea eventually get to the house unscathed, though Darren crashes their party with his girlfriend, Malia (Roselyn Sanchez). Not long afterward, Brea discovers an encrypted satellite phone that appears to be used for trafficking drugged and beaten women. Initially, the flagrancy of the plot’s contrivances only renders the film scarier and more resonant, as every twist is almost farcically rooted in John’s fear of a perfect weekend ruined, as well as in Brea’s more implicit fear of the exposure of her liberal hypocrisy. And Darren, who’s played by Alonso with vivid brashness, is a wild card: a shameless hound with a number of chips on his shoulder. This chic house threatens to collapse from in-fighting before the bikers, members of the country’s shadowy underbelly, come looking for the phone.
And then the siege begins and lasts roughly 10 minutes, as Taylor ambushes us with one missed narrative opportunity after another. Class issues are forgotten as John and his friends are separated, effectively rendering the tensions among them meaningless for the remainder of the narrative. Traffik first devolves into a stalk-and-chase horror film before sinking further into an absurd torture thriller, as Brea is drugged and carted off and dragged into a cavern of exploitive evil. The film saves its nadir for the end though, climaxing with a self-righteous statement about the perils of human trafficking, which scans as disingenuous when offered in the context of a pulpy thriller that’s predominantly interested in drinking in its own female star’s body.