Three stories are connected in one way or another by the life-style of drugs. At the forefront are a U.S. drug czar (Michael Douglas) who learns his daughter is an addict and a Mexican cop (Benicio Del Toro in an Oscar-winning role) dealing with a corrupt system. Meanwhile, a wealthy housewife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) whose husband is arrested for dealing must choose to carry on the business or sacrifice her lifestyle.
Steven Soderbergh is a guy I never really watched all that much before, but for some odd reason within the past 2 months, I’ve watched about 5 of his flicks already and there’s a lot more to come by now. Keeping the streak going now with probably one of his most underrated flicks.
The idea of telling one subject through different story-lines isn’t a new approach by any means, but the way Soderbergh does it here makes it seem fresh and exciting. Every single story in their own right has a nice look and feel to it, each marked with their own layer of tension as well as insight into the drug world. We get right into these characters stories right away and the attention that Soderbergh grabs us at is what works the most considering that his direction keeps this flick moving.
It also helped that every story had a different color shaded camera to each one so that we could tell which story was which and it added a lot to the stories. The USA stories are all full of washed-out colors that look like they have been in a rain-storm for about 3 days while the stories that take place in Mexico has a very distorted color look that gives it this very yellow and bright color that seems like it came from the “Jesus Walks” video. (Wait a minute, do I hear inspiration?? Damn Kanye!) Soderbergh also uses the hand-held camera style and it’s a lot less annoying here than I thought it was originally going to be in the first place and it adds so much to the stories by giving it this documentary feel. I know it sounds crazy that I’m typing a whole paragraph dedicated to the camera-work in a Soderbergh flick but it can go a long way if you use it correctly.
Perhaps my favorite element about this flick was that as much as it may talk about the war on drugs and how we are sometimes winning and losing it, Soderbergh kind of leaves it up to us to make our own assumptions about how we feel about drugs. I thought this was a very brave and smart thing to do considering everybody is effected by drugs differently and it’s up to us to decide what is right and what is wrong when it comes to drugs, we can’t just depend on the government to save us. The flick never gets preachy and as much as Soderbergh may be showing this flick off like an anti-drug film, it still also shows the fact that drugs are really starting to take over the world, and very quickly I might add. Soderbergh does a great job by not saying anything when he could have easily made this a 2 hour and 30 minute long sermon about how he felt about drugs. Instead, he didn’t which is definitely what won me over for this flick.
My main problem with this film is that the screenplay itself seems to really be uneven. I have to say that the stories are pretty interesting as it is but they all seemed to start-and-stop in their own time and just when one seemed like it was about to get good, the film all of a sudden pops into another one for no reason. This is usually the problem with a lot of films that have multiple story-lines going on like this but for some reason here, it just felt like this film could have balanced out its stories better. I won’t say that some were more interesting than others but they all seemed to go in different paths which was a good thing and bad thing at the same time.
My other problem with this flick was that as interesting as the stories are, I could still never get into the characters that inhibited them which is where I think Soderbergh lost me with this flick. Yes, I understand this film is supposed to be a gritty, dark, and depressing take on the world of drugs that we live in, but after awhile, I just wanted to be able to root someone on let alone feel something for one person, even if it was only for a small second. Every character seems almost in one way or another, corrupt or totally idiotic and it’s a little frustrating when one character can’t seem to see the full picture, when it’s pretty damn clear in the first place. I don’t want to try and give away too much here but there was also a lot of plot twists that started going down at the end as well, that may have been a little too far-fetched but only because the plot is the one thing we were mostly paying attention to rather than the characters themselves.
The only character and performance I could really get into with this flick was actually Benicio Del Toro as Javier Rodriguez Rodriguez. Del Toro is a guy I see from time-to-time and even though I can never really get into the performances that he gives, I still know that there is something special about him and this is the flick that shows me why. Del Toro is the real moral center of this flick and shows a true, real, and compassionate character that seems so trapped, so screwed over, and so messed-up without ever taking drugs, that you can’t help but cheer his ass on. Del Toro has many moments where he just lets loose of the emotions he has wrapped inside and the way he shows it through Javier is what definitely makes this an Oscar-worthy performance even though I’m sure I need to see the other ones from the year 2000 as well.
The rest of the cast is pretty good too, but just not as special as Del Toro. Michael Douglas has his moments as Robert Hudson Wakefield but other than that he’s basically playing the same vain asshole he plays in every film; Don Cheadle is good to watch as the under-cover cop, Montel (a role that I think he’s played about a hundred times before) and his partner, Ray, played by Luis Guzmán, brings a lot of humor as well; Catherine Zeta-Jones is actually very good as Helena Ayala, the vengeful wife that ends up taking over her husband’s duties and her performance is very believable, much to my surprise; Dennis Quaid is just here as Arnie Metzger, but it’s always cool to see him around; and the two crazy kiddies on drugs are played by Topher Grace and Erika Christensen, who are both good and they play up the whole stoned act pretty well. Considering this is a Soderbergh film I’m talking about, there is probably 100 more noticeable faces in this flick that I’m forgetting to mention, but just watch it, and then you can play the “Guess Who That Is!?” game, that I sometimes win, and sometimes lose. Damn Mommy!
Consensus: Traffic does a great job by telling its one subject through three interesting stories that are all featured with great performances, no clear-cut messages on what it’s trying to say, and a bunch tension running through the whole time but there is no real emotional impact that comes together here and instead you just sort of watch a dark flick about drugs, without any people you can care about, except for Del Toro’s character.