Rumor has it that Trade is being positioned for a tidy fall release so that the film will stick in Academy voter’s minds once the Oscars come around early next year. If that is the case, its producers are bound to be monumentally disappointed. Trade is a dreadfully hollow film, empty of everything except pretension and self-importance posturing posing as art. It’s not that the film’s heart isn’t in the right place, or that its soapbox is unworthy — far from it — but the filmmaking is so amateurish and hamstrung by muddled sentimentality that it proves the old adage: the road to cinematic hell is paved with good intentions.
According to the U.S. State Department, more than 800,000 human beings are trafficked across increasingly sieve-like international borders each year, most for the purpose of sexual exploitation. Of that number, fully 80 percent are female and 50 percent are minors. Horrifyingly, most sex slaves end up in America and are never heard from again. Based on “The Girls Next Door,” an explosive expose by Peter Landesman that ran in The New York Times Magazine, Trade attempts to wrestle a vast political story with a global significance into a very compact, human story. Undoubtedly the correct approach, Trade collapses in on itself because the human story it attempts to tell is riddled with clichés and sensationalistic stereotypes.
The narrative centers on the abduction of a young Polish woman (Alicja Bachleda) and a 13-year-old Mexican girl (Paulina Gaitan) whose small-time crook brother, Jorge (Cesar Ramos), will stop at nothing to rescue. Shadowing the truck in which the abductees are being transported, Jorge finds himself sneaking across the border into the United States where he discovered by Ray (Kevin Kline), a lawman with a painful vendetta of his own. The film degrades into a sort of road-trip, buddy picture as Jorge, who has convinced Ray of his sister’s plight, trades barbs, xenophobic tirades and witticisms on the road to New Jersey where the girls are to be auctioned off to the highest bidder over the Internet.
As Trade progresses, it gets more and more implausible, setting up improbable situations that exist only because the script — and not any sense of reality — has fashioned them into existence. By the end, Trade feels like a bad episode of any number of TV crime shows in which a heavy-handed, overwrought score telegraphs the arrival of the good guys to save the day just in the nick of time. The film is schlocky melodrama where sincere subtlety should have been.
While Bachleda, Gaitan and Ramos perform extremely well, Kline, a great actor by anyone’s estimation, is woefully miscast. With an on again/off again Texas drawl, he is stiff and unemotional. A relationship with his wife which we see via a series of phone calls home to discuss an ailing cat, is completely unconvincing (and just plain ridiculous). His dialogue, like that of the entire script is leaden, clumsy and inert, sounding as if it has run through several language translators until it has been bleed dry of all life and consequence — all the more surprising since it came from Oscar-nominated screenwriter and playwright Jose Rivera, who penned the exquisite The Motorcycle Dairies. Similarly, German director Marco Kreuzpaintner’s camera never kicks it into high gear, preferring lingering, frustratingly out-of-focus shots over any sort of dramatic, narrative velocity.
Trade had all the earmarks of literate, thoughtful drama, written by a talented screenwriter, confronting a thorny political issue that plays out across an international stage, and grounded in a solid cast. So it is all the more shocking and quite frankly disappointing that the final product is an exercise in tawdry, melodramatic exploitation, more interested in sordid sensationalism than politicized thrills. This very real and very tragic problem deserved far better than this.
If there is an upside to the unfortunate mess that is Trade, it’s that the film’s producer, Roland Emmerich originally wanted to direct the film himself but was ultimately unable to find the time. It is almost inconceivable picturing the director of such films as Independence Day, Godzilla, and The Day After Tomorrow helming a picture as necessarily intimate as this one, without the script calling for the explosive end of the White House or some other such monument. Compared to what we were spared, this version might just be a masterpiece.