26 July 2000

Traffic (2000)

Dir: Stephen Soderbergh

...never fails to seduce.

It's beyond trite to say this is an landmark film, even though it is one of the most gripping and suspenseful thrillers I've ever sat through. This stylish and multi-faceted film sees Stephen Soderbergh display a command of the director’s craft that he only promised in earlier films like sex lies and videotape, King of the Hill or The Underneath. Latterly we have become accustomed to him bringing his independent smarts to the studio system in films like Out of Sight, or his crossover mainstream hit of last year, Erin Brockovich, a film which forced me to flip my view of Julia Roberts from appalling to appealing, such is the maestro's skill.

But Traffic is something else again - a film so accomplished it attracts critical clichés like moths to a flame. It is nothing less than the most authentic portrait of America’s drug trade yet committed to celluloid. With an all-star ensemble cast, filmed in 8 different cities and over 110 locations, it is a vast undertaking that takes the viewer on an exhilarating ride of intrigue, suspense and drama. Traffic’s tableaux is populated by characters which traverse all strata of the supply and consumption of illicit drugs, from the highest officials - both honest and corrupt - to the frontline victims of hard core addiction. Sparing us sermons on why people shouldn’t take drugs, the film ultimately demonstrates how America’s policy of waging an unwinnable supply-side "war against drugs” has only ended up entrenching organized crime, corrupting the public sector, and punishing the victims of addiction, while doing precisely nothing to stem the rising destructive tide of drug use at all levels of society.

Such a thesis is built quietly, subtly by a screenplay that intertwines three stories: an honest cop (Benicio Del Toro) trying to function within a “entrepreneurial” police force corrupted by the ruthless cartels that traffic drugs across the US/Mexico border; a conservative judge (Michael Douglas), whose appointment as the President's new national anti-drug czar coincides with his daughter's (Erika Christensen) slide into addiction; and a naïve society matron (Catherine Zeta-Jones) whose bourgeois life is thrown into turmoil when her husband is arrested for drug trafficking. Hitherto, she thought he was an upstanding pillar of society.

Soderbergh mixes up the cinematic styles for each thread of the narrative, for instance the Mexican sequences are given a dreamy treatment, shot hand-held by Soderbergh himself in saturated colours on a stock so grainy it could be Super 8. The sequences where Douglas’s anti-drug czar goes on a fact-finding mission to “the frontline”, inspecting border crossings, or high tech anti-trafficking facilities have a semi-documentary feel, again shot hand held. Zeta-Jones sequences are shot like movie-of-the-week, as her lady-that-lunches, faced with losing everything, must swot up on the family business of engaging hit men, laundering money and dealing with the Tijuana cartels.

The detailed portrayal of police work rings true, in fact the whole films proffers a “no bullshit” authenticity, wrapped in the hip, contemporary apparel of independent filmmaking. This is intelligent cinema that assumes - and demands - an engaged and interested audience. That said, it flows freely and with ease and never fails to seduce. The cast is so good they render superlatives meaningless. Just go and see it. Then we can talk.


First published in Australian Style.

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