Directed By Steven Soderbergh
By: Eric G.
Steven Soderbergh's engrossing ensemble thriller realistically delineates both the diffusion of drug trafficking in America as well as the futile war on drugs. Shot through filters and effects, Soderbergh's second film this year unfolds like a documentary without Hollywood's plastic hand getting in the way. Ensemble casts typically muck up films with too much baggage and showy story intertwinings, but Soderbergh handles each of these vignettes with masterful aplomb.
Traffic is intensely engaging despite its two-and-a-half-hour length. Each story carries its own suspense and intrigue and Soderbergh links them seamlessly. It's a fine line when you juxtapose such obvious and seemingly moralistic scenarios as "drugs are bad" and "the government's war on drugs is pointless", but Soderbergh avoids cartoonish proportions by shooting from the inside out. Every scene is up close and personal. The camera rarely sweeps for landscapes or setting. Instead it follows each character's every expression to the point where you really feel like you're right there in the thick of it.
Benecio Del Toro puts his awful turn alongside Alicia Silverstone in Excess Baggage to bed forever. No one will ever question his judgment again. He is astoundingly good as a Mexican police officer resigned to the massive corruption that surrounds him. Half his lines are in Spanish, but all you need to see is his sleepy face to gauge his inner moral compass, which serves as the one sign of hope throughout the film. Del Toro's character finds himself in the midst of an hopeless situation. The corruption that consumes his profession is so overwhelmingly out of control that he accepts it with sheepish indignation while managing to do what he feels is right. His story is a microcosm of the film's central theme.
Michael Douglas's character faces the most disturbing realization, though. He is a state Supreme Court Justice asked by the President to head up the country's war on drugs but little does he know that his own overachieving daughter bored by typical suburban decadence has begun to experiment with freebasing cocaine. Soderbergh doesn't beat you over the head with the inherent irony of the situation. In fact, he very subtilely morphs the two stories through Douglas' gradual breakdown. Realizing that his own daughter is exactly the enemy he is supposed to fight in his new post, Douglas' Judge Wakefield finally understands the utter pointlessness of his position and his country's misguided stance on the problem.
Douglas may be a weathered veteran of playing privileged pricks, but his character here is deeper and more complex than his typical smarmy asshole persona. Erika Christensen is equally effective as his daughter with her expressive face that simultaneously evokes deceit and innocence while lost in a euphoric crack-induced haze. The rest of the cast is equally potent. Catherine Zeta-Jones makes her character's shift from comfortable housewife to conniving survivalist look all too easy. And Don Cheadle, whom I though I could never forgive for taking away two hours of my life in Mission To Mars, redeems himself as a jaded but sensitive undercover cop who helps bust one of the powerful drug traffickers. The amount of famous faces is surprisingly not obtrusive. Every character is so well drawn out that each actor's respective fame doesn't overshadow Stephen Gaghan’s sharp storyline. Perhaps, Robert Altman should take note or just watch some of his own early films.
Soderbergh's only intrusive characteristic, though, is his definitive atmospheric montage, which he slips in every one of his films. His artful direction reminds us that it is possible for fake plastic Hollywood to produce a film that isn't dumbed down for the masses and edited for easy digestion. Traffic is one of those rare films that you leave feeling equally impressed and depressed by. Most surprising of all is Soderbergh's lack of moralizing. Films by nature are tools for manipulation and just by proxy typically fall into a political field, but Soderbergh manages to stave off politicizing his themes. He shows us drugs and how they infiltrate our society. He also shows us how the government deals with it. He does not, however, presume to tell us whether any of it is right or wrong, and that alone is enough to make this film something you should see.