By Joe Lozito
The Score on Drugs
Steven Soderbergh has always been an exciting director. Though his earlier films were sometimes dense and cynical (Kafka, Schizopolis) he has recently found a directorial voice which is vital and even fun. His films are always worth viewing. He was even able to take a standard David and Goliath story like "Erin Brockovich" and turn it into an intelligent character study. His film "Traffic" which deals with the effect of drugs on all the social strata, combines the skills he's been honing throughout his career - the shaky handheld of "sex, lies and videotape", the vibrant colors of "Out of Sight", the non-linear storytelling of "The Limey". All of these films, while outstanding in their own regard, almost seem like an exercise when compared with the complex, masterful filmmaking at work here.
"Traffic" is that rare ensemble film, like "Magnolia" or "Nashville" which manages to introduce a plethora of characters and situations and somehow weave them all into something greater than the sum of its parts. The cast that Mr. Soderbergh has assembled is uniformly wonderful. The only standout performance may come from Benicio Del Toro. The actor of a thousand voices adds to his list of memorable roles (The Usual Suspects, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) Javier Rodriguez Rodriguez, a soft-spoken Mexican cop caught up in the corruption of his environment and unsure how to make things right. Mr. Del Toro imbues the character with such humanity, even when he is making patently incorrect choices, that we have no choice but to feel for him.
It is this same feeling of moral ambiguity that makes "Traffic" such an outstanding film. No character has all the answers. In fact, most characters have only wrong ones. But each of them subtly learns how to cope with the effect of drugs in their own way. Michael Douglas, eminently convincing as the head of a government task force, is thrown into every parent's nightmare as his daughter's (an impressive Erika Christensen) experiments with drugs get out of hand. Catherine Zeta-Jones turns in her first full performance as the clueless, socialite wife of a drug czar, who is forced to take matters into her own hands in order to protect her son. Don Cheadle turns in another thoughtful performance as a cop assigned to protect a drug dealer who is serving as chief witness in a dangerous trial.
Operating the largely handheld camera himself, under a pseudonym, Mr. Soderbergh achieves a documentary feeling at times. As the film jumps from story to story, the threads intersect and part again - not in a precious "Pulp Fiction" way, but in a way that is almost frighteningly accurate. Working from a script by Stephen Gaghan (TV's NYPD Blue and The Practice) based on a five-part "Masterpiece Theatre" mini-series called "Traffik," Mr. Soderbergh manages to paint a living picture of the drug war without preaching and without offering opinions. The scenes in the film tend to start halfway through, then build to a climax and cut just before a conclusion is drawn. The same can be said for the whole film. Mr. Soderburgh never insults or spoon-feeds his audience. His camera only documents and observes what's out there. And with a subject like this, that can be the most effective technique.