A conservative judge is appointed by the President to spearhead America's escalating war against drugs, only to discover that his teenage daughter is a crack addict. Two DEA agents protect an informant. A jailed drug baron's wife attempts to carry on the family business.
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An intertwined drama about the United States' war on drugs, seen through the eyes of a once conservative judge, now newly-appointed drug czar, his crack-addicted daughter, two DEA agents, a jailed drug kingpin's wife, and a Mexican cop who begins to question his boss's motives.
The film more than delivers on every level and is certainly a lock for Best Picture of the year. Soderbergh has been on an astonishing roll, demonstrating exceptional versatility in his choice of genres and tremendous agility in balancing artistry with entertainment. He's been America's most consistently brilliant and unpredictable filmmaker for the last decade, and Traffic is the culminating work of his career. First and foremost, it's a richly entertaining epic that recalls the great works of the 1970s, when directors like Robert Altman and Francis Ford Coppola engaged mass audiences with works of genuine substance. Soderbergh works on a larger canvass than he's ever done before, bouncing several characters and plot-lines against and off each other, so that images and themes rhyme and echo. Although the subject matter is drug trafficking, this is not an "issues" movie per se. Instead, it's a profoundly affecting dramatic thriller where the destructive forces of drugs cut across different sections of society. What's most impressive about the direction is how Soderbergh manages to avoid both sentimentalizing and moralizing about drugs. As with Erin Brockovich, there's a graceful absence of self-importance and bombast in the presentation. However, this doesn't mean the film lacks a strong point of view.
Stylistically, this film represents a major breakthrough. Soderbergh shot the film himself (under the pseudonym Peter Andrews) and Traffic takes all of his past experiments with color, available light, and hand-held work light-years beyond The Limey and Out of Sight. He has created a brilliant style that could best characterized as expressionistic naturalism. His loose hand-held style lends the film an extremely spontaneous realistic tone, but the modifications of color amplify the drama. Each storyline has its own distinct look that accentuates the emotions underlining the film. (The Mexico story involving Benicio Del Toro is told in earthy saturated yellows, the story of Michael Douglas and his daughter Erika Christensen is told in an aquarium blue, while the Catherine Zeta-Jones, Luis Guzman-Don Cheadle story gets a natural available light look). In addition to being visually striking and cool in a completely unpretentious manner, Soderbergh's camera technique transcends mere virtuosity and actually becomes another character in the film. As usual with Soderbergh, the film is edited with musical verve and skill, where time is collapsed and expanded, and characters are seen reflecting on past actions.
I've been remiss in not discussing the acting earlier. This film has an amazing ensemble cast where everybody is working at the top of their game. However, Benicio Del Toro definitely stands out with the breakthrough performance. I don't think it's accidental that the movie begins and ends with shots of him. He plays Javier Rodriguez, a Mexican police officer caught in a futile and corrupt system, and it's as compelling of a character as Michael Corleone. Del Toro is exceptionally relaxed and subtle, keeping his thoughts and feelings private from the other characters in the films, but sharing it with the camera. Del Toro navigates the audience through a world of impossible choices and moral corruption, quietly simmering with intense conflict just beneath the surface. Benicio's been an indie stalwart for years, but this film should shoot his stock through the roof. If there's justice in this world, he'll be rewarded with Best Actor Awards aplenty.
Michael Douglas is also terrific, adding another strong performance to his gallery of flawed men in power. He shows genuine fear and vulnerability in a harrowing scene in which he searches for his daughter in a drug dealer's den. I've never seen Erika Christensen before, but she makes an impressive debut. Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman (they should star as a team in every movie!) are as loose, limber and spontaneous as ever, providing plenty of comic relief as well as keeping it real. Catherine Zeta-Jones takes a complete 180 from her past roles and admirably plays against her looks, appearing very pregnant while thrown into gritty surroundings. Dennis Quaid is appropriately slimy as a corrupt lawyer.
Anyway, film geeks and anybody else starved for a genuine piece of filmmaking should breathe a sigh of relief and give thanks that Soderbergh has come to save the day.
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