Film Review: Tricked

A sobering portrait of the scourge that dares not speak its name, <i>Tricked </i>deserves its own hybrid classification: the horror documentary.

Forget the ancient dichotomy of the mother and the whore. All women are either prostitutes or whores, according to the pimp whose remarks open Tricked, a comprehensive documentary about America’s sex-trafficking industry. An outlandish personality almost literary, almost contrived, you would like to hope, with his dark pearls of wisdom, he explains the simple difference: Women either give it up for free, in which case they’re whores (read: dumb), or else they sell themselves, and earn a little money off the inevitable (read: smart, or at least pragmatic about their utility). The pimp shrugs. I mean, which sounds better?

As Tricked makes clear, the irrationality (a kindly term) espoused by those like our sage of the slums is not the only form of ignorance law-enforcement officials, social workers and human-rights activists find themselves confronting time and again. I had thought, nowadays, prostitutes were in a kind of business relationship with their pimps, admits New York Times writer Nick Kristof. After all, we’re post women’s lib, we live in an age of constant and facile communication—how could a nice college girl be forced into turning tricks if she did not, on some level if not on overt terms of sexual empowerment, want to?

Filmmakers Jane Wells and John-Keith Wasson spend much of their briskly paced film highlighting the testimony of just such a nice college girl, former prostitute, and activist, Danielle, who corroborates psychologist Shera Bradley’s claim that no prostitute comes out of the business unscathed. We also meet Amelia, a shy teenager who speaks with the voice of a 12-year-old girl. Amelia’s lisping, breathy speech makes her frank recounting of the night she was forced to perform sex acts with a man in a hotel room sound oddly dissonant. It’s clear she’s revealed all before—with little to show for her efforts, her angry mother denounces a judicial system that is slow to prosecute pimps and quick to term its victim-witnesses “unreliable”—and manages to do so again almost without emotion. Until the very end of her story, when she slaps her hand to her forehead and moans, “I was so stupid!”

Much of Tricked is difficult to listen to. The whippings with chains, disgusting measures pimps take to keep their girls from having babies, the mind games and exploitation of teenage vulnerabilities that includes appealing to silly vanity and turning a natural desire for affection into a weapon capable of atomic, here spiritual, destruction, are all enumerated by former prostitutes and the officials, from Boston to Denver to Vegas, who are swimming upstream to dam the swelling problem. But it’s the smooth-talking pimps and johns (the men who pay for sex) who lend Tricked both its element of horror and its air of journalistic legitimacy. The story belongs to the victims, but in the interests of comprehensiveness, the directors cannily and un-showily appeal to audience outrage by giving the perpetrators their due screen time. So, in addition to our philosophizing pimp, we get a look at an overeducated john who can self-justify with the best of them. For all the Expressionist paintings and framed diplomas hanging in his apartment, he has no qualms using the redneck’s “This is Amurrica” line of defense for his actions. “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” he says smugly. “Why do I pay for sex? It’s because I’m being human.”

“Human” covers all manner of sins. “You almost want to like him,” Sgt. Dan Steele of Denver says of an affable pimp we’ve just watched him bust and handcuff. The perp’s all smiles, jokes and earnest protestations of his innocence-ignorance. And then you remember he’s a sack of shit, Sgt. Steele, the father of two girls, deadpans.

There are many engaging, complicated and frighteningly fascinating personalities on display in Tricked, whose filmmakers make their point by giving all and sundry the chance to explain, and thus frequently damn, themselves. Any one of the film’s interviewees could warrant a biographical documentary in his or her own right. Yet while this panoramic approach is effective in depicting the national breadth of the “modern slavery” industry and in drumming up audience sympathies for the girls, it’s also inevitably unsatisfying. The surface explanation the bad guys afford themselves, that the pimps do it for the money and the johns do it just because they can, is incomplete. Another story is implicit here, about the kind of environment, institutions and learned habits that beget the kind of people it’s difficult to see as more deeply shaded than horror-movie monsters—or even, in the case of those girls lured by online predators of both sexes, as more than naïve young things starving for affection. As a clarion call to a broader awareness, however, Tricked sounds a piercing note.