Set in Kansas in 1883, Traded tells a tale of rescue and revenge on the Western frontier. The plot seems simple and familiar: gunslinger-turned-rancher Clay Travis (Michael Paré) leaves his quiet family life in pursuit of his teenage daughter. Lily (Brittany Elizabeth Williams) runs away to be a Harvey Girl waitress but gets abducted by sex traffickers. Heading to Wichita and then Dodge City, Clay encounters some classic villains and some unlikely helpmates in his quest to recover her. As director Timothy Woodward Jr. says, “It’s like Taken in the Wild West.”
In reprising the kidnapped girl plot, Traded draws from other source materials, including John Ford’s The Searchers (1956). The opening voiceover solemnly informs us that, 20 years after the Civil War, slavery is alive and well, and thriving in the system of prostitution that treats women like property. To that end, Traded resists the black and white racial politics of many classic Westerns, as well as Taken’s xenophobia. Here the bad guys are “regular” Americans, that is to say, white Americans. The only black individuals we see are a drunken stage coach driver and his young son. Native Americans are marginalized to the point of complete invisibility.
Just so, the film doesn’t offer much in the way of intersectional feminism. Traded focuses on women’s abuses, but not in a way that might make it a neo-, revisionist or post-Western. While it avoids the sleazy excesses of Taken and the unsavory moral agenda of The Searchers, in which hero John Wayne conflates sexual violation with moral defilement, the “woman’s role” is clear and limited: she is supposed to wait and suffer. Clay’s wife Amelia (Constance Brenneman) minds the house while he’s off on his adventures. Lily defines her father’s active masculinity by contrast to her own feminine naivety and passivity. Indeed, the Searchers‘ abducted girl Debbie (Natalie Wood) offers more emotional complexity and moral ambiguity when John Wayne discovers she doesn’t want to go home.
All of this makes Traded a bit of a puzzle to read. I came to it as a resisting reader. But it turns out to have all the compensatory pleasures of an old-fashioned Western and it won me over.
Traded looks authentic. From the Rusty Spur Saloon and the drab 1880s couture and cuisine, to the characters’ imperfect skins, these look like real people in real places at a particular historical moment. Traded was filmed in California and New Mexico, including locations like the Big Sky Movie Ranch, home to classic television Westerns, like Rawhide, Bonanza, and Gunsmoke. But the familiarity of the landscape doesn’t generate recognition of the film’s constructedness, as it might have done in other hands. Rather, there’s a comforting sense that we know where the characters are. Cinematographer Pablo Diez’s wide shots, images we’ve seen in countless Westerns, have similar effects. In these settings, fight scenes deliver realistic outcomes. Clay Travis is a competent gunslinger and resourceful fighter, but he’s doesn’t have superpowers.
In contrast to so many current movies’ emphasis on the CGI experience, Traded returns to a simpler aesthetic. What counts here is the story and the characters. Everything else is backdrop. It harks back to Will Wright’s structuralist reading of the “classic” Western in Sixguns and Society (1975). That is, it’s structured by binary oppositions (notably, good/bad) and narrative “functions”. If this architecture sounds creatively confining, it also lends itself to emotional rewards for viewers. In the case of Traded, a character called “Girl” (Marie Oldenbourg), who endures horrible abuse at the hands of her vile stepfather (Martin Kove), both helps our hero on his quest (her function) and elicits his and our empathy.
This stands against the villains, who predictably have no redeeming qualities. Ty Stover (Trace Adkins) trades Lily for a large bell, on which he lavishes his attention. Lavoie (Tom Sizemore) kills dissenting voices, literally, and gets his perverse pleasures from torturing our hero. Even though their primary function is to help us to root for the hero, they are not one-dimensional characters. The particular modes of their comeuppances are profoundly satisfying.
The highlight of the movie is Kris Kristofferson as Billy, an aging bartender who functions as helper and donor to the hero. He provides gun power and a horse at key moments, as well as some philosophizing about violence. Billy’s name is a nod to his famous role in Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973). He connects Traded to the history of the Western, and brings a special sort of authenticity to his role. (Apparently, he even wears the same boots for both parts.) The camera loves the lines on his face. He looks at Travis with eyes that have seen it all before. When Billy reflects that it’s time to retire, the moment is both an elegy for the old Western and a poignant reminder of Kristofferson’s own age.
In a recent interview, Kristofferson was asked if he is “still feeling ‘mortal'” (the title of his last album), or maybe a little post-mortal?” Kristofferson replied, “Post-mortal’s a little ahead of the game, but, no, I’m definitely feeling old.” Traded offers some of that, the dignity and the mystery of “feeling old”, in its image of Kristofferson heading off into the sunset.