Note: The following review has been written to avoid spoilers. In addition, viewer discretion is advised due to the themes and content of the movie.
"Whatcha haulin' there, son?" the man behind the convenience store register asks. "Nothing" a man in a white tank top, with a beard, dark hair and two arm tattoos replies. There is a broken look on his face as he pays for his goods with a crisp hundred dollar bill. As he takes his goods and the stuffed bear he purchased on a whim, the man behind the counter cautiously examines the bill. A glance at his customer's truck would have revealed a faded "Party Time Rentals" decal, chipped paint, and an ominously large lock on the back door. "I was a good man once," we hear the truck driver narrate. "Now I'm a man in despair, (and) desperation makes you do funny things."
Two-time Grammy winning CCM duo for KING & COUNTRY takes us into the life of James Stevens, a man on the edge who agrees to drive a truck with a mysterious, unknown cargo for a paycheck. Joel and Luke Smallbone, the two brothers who made the band a reality, have expressed both passion for filmmaking and compassion for victims of human trafficking. Priceless combines these two into a drama, based on true stories, that asks a simple question: how much is a woman worth?
It seems like a laughably obvious question to some. But as our society asks its questions about feminism, gender, and sex, that same society fails to find an answer. Sex outside of marriage, adultery, affairs, and divorce have become the norm in the States, if not around the world. Pornography and prostitution are on the rise. Human trafficking has monstrously accelerated in our streets. As the full weight of such sin weighs down on one of Priceless' characters, in a dark and hopeless situation she asks a sobering question: "How much am I worth?"
Joel Smallbone portrays James, the main character tasked with driving the aforementioned truck and cargo. After a near collision along the highways, he opens the back to discover two dirty, scared women sitting in the filthy cargo hold. Antonia (Bianca Santos) and Maria (Amber Midthunder) are two sisters who mistakenly believe they are going to find work in the States, but when James brings them to the assigned drop-off point, he quickly realizes what he has done and seeks to make things right. Fighting alongside James is Dale (David Koechner), a motel owner with an interest in crushing the human trafficking operations within his town, but opposing their efforts is Garo (Jim Parrack), the head of a local prostitution effort.
Joel's acting is fantastic as he expresses James' hopelessness, despair, anger, love for his own daughter, and passion to correct his mistakes. The audience receives only a few minutes of James' past, but it is Joel's portrayal that fully engages us in the rest of his story. On the other side of the drama, Bianca perfectly transitions between peace and terror as she and Maria realize how they have been sold into slavery. David Koechner plays Dale, a Christian motel owner who stands alongside James and prompts him to reexamine his stance with Jesus Christ as he fights for Antonia's and Maria's freedom. He comes across as a gentle and firm father figure, delivering arguably some of the best dialogue in the entire movie. Jim Parrack's character, Garo, plays a convincing and essential villain who smoothly toggles between suave and intimidating across scenes.
From the opening scenes, Priceless is beautifully filmed and orchestrated. The cinematography is excellent, with slow paced, meaningful shots for contemplative scenes while jerking and accelerating appropriately for shots of distress and suspense. The camera work is engaging and keeps the audience invested in each scene. And as would be expected from two critically acclaimed musicians, the score is magnificent. It rises and drops appropriately with each scene, subtle yet adding another level of depth to each scene. For KING & COUNTRY's sound has often been described as theatrical, an observation which is clearly evident in the movie. There is a clear attention to detail contrasting that of many other theatrical projects.
All technical elements aside, the movie's greatest strength is how it portrays its story. The narrative is simple in premise but filled with complexity and layered meaning, especially noticeable in the dialogue and cinematography. Priceless weaves suspenseful, gripping and engaging scenes with moments of contemplation and time for the audience to feel the impact. The character roster is small enough to keep their stories streamlined, but not too small such that we feel as if another viewpoint is necessary.
In portraying a story about human trafficking, naturally, Priceless exercises caution in portraying the content. In the entire movie, the movie's most detailed and dirty word is "prostitution," used only once by a character stressing a point. We see a closed door on the camera and hear white noise cover the audio in one scene, yet no explicit mention of exactly what happened behind said door. In fact, the only bare skin we see throughout the entire movie is James' unsleeved arms with a tattoo reading 'Let all you do be done in love" inscribed. The film does portray some disturbing elements and moments, thus the PG-13 rating, but all in all it is cautious in its thematic elements. Especially in contrast to a moviemaking culture slowly but surely pulling back clothes and sheets, Priceless draws a line and focuses on the story.
But even with such darkness, the light slowly peeks through the film. James' tattoo implies a former passion for Jesus Christ, a passion Dale inspires him to rekindle. In fact, most of Dale's dialogue either consists of asking James pointed questions or laying out the truth to his newfound friend. In a complementary way, Maria demonstrates her faith amidst friends and foes, even going so far as to tell pivotal characters that she will pray for them, though other characters dismiss her words as naïve.
But where many other Christian films stumble over themselves in seemingly cheesy Sunday-school dialogue, Priceless' message starts out as a subtle hint and eventually escalates into the central theme. The beginning leaves audiences wondering alongside James why Antonia's and Maria's lives are even worth saving, but as his story continues, his motives align and provide him with the necessary resolve. "All these girls have a Father that loves them too," Dale says, playing off of James' own family struggles and convincing him to check his motives. "So if you're hearing a little voice that's telling you to stay, that there's a larger hand at play here, then you might want to listen to that voice," Dale adds.
Amidst the few films that can combine a necessary message with an engaging drama, Priceless certainly earns its place. Weaving intricately captured cinematography, a gripping score, a versatile cast, and a powerful truth, the Smallbone brothers have surpassed expectations and set a new bar for Christian filmmakers. The story is masterfully written, with a lasting impact that inspires hope. Even more so, Priceless leaves audiences with resolve and a natural call to action, beautifully answering the question it sets out to answer. What is a woman worth? Because of the love of the Father, "every life … man, woman, boy, and girl is incredibly, undoubtedly, completely priceless."