Every once in awhile you get to witness A Thing of Beauty. Maybe you’re vacationing in Hawaii and a supermodel walks through the lobby of your hotel. Or perhaps you turn down the wrong street and someone’s working on their vintage, all-parts-original, classic muscle car. Or, to a lesser extent, you’ve seen the Grand Canyon or something. Whatever the case, this is what it’s like when you watch Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic.
The cast is headed by Michael Douglas, Catherine Zeta- Jones, Don Cheadle and Benicio Del Toro. However, to call it an all-star cast, which will undoubtedly conjure up an image of lesser movies (Valentine’s Day comes to mind, and brings with it a little bile to my throat), would be an insult. What makes this cast so great is that though many of them are bona fide Hollywood stalwarts and A-listers, none of them are attempting to outdo each other. They’re just very successfully telling a gripping and gritty story.
That story is of the ongoing, and mostly unsuccessful “War on Drugs” both in the United States of America and Mexico. Soderbergh masterfully does this by examining the drug trade from various points of view, and with unblinking honesty. This movie is rated R, which in this case could stand for Riveting or Raw. But what it does stand for is Real (notice the Bold and Italics? Yeah, it’s that kind of real). This film has the feel of a documentary, and as a viewer you often get the sense that you’re looking behind the scenes of places that were never meant to be seen.
With his stylistic, multi-hued filters in full effect (as seen below), Soderbergh divides his plot into three distinct storylines that slowly start to merge as his characters get further entrenched into the inner workings of the drug trade, be it on the illegal trafficking or drug enforcement side. These effects are used as MichaelBay could only ever dream of. Instead of the cheesy, sweeping camera tricks that a director like Bay is known for, Soderbergh uses these effects as a surgeon uses a scalpel. The clinical blue hue in Douglas’ storyline puts you in the offices of the power players in WashingtonD.C., and the stark, yellowed-tinged viewpoint of Del Toro’s Mexico plot has you smelling sagebrush and wiping sand from your eyes (and possibly ready to order a cerveza or dos).
What is most impressive about this film, though, is the length to which Soderbergh went to make sure the details were attended to. Example: as a fluent Spanish-speaker, many are the films where an actor is trying to pass off his accented English or his “native” Spanish as authentic, and all the while my ears are clenching. Add to this the contrived, Webster’s Dictionary Spanish-to-English or visa versa translation of dialogue, and I’ll show you the medical bills where I’ve gotten detached retinas from my eyes rolling so often. This is not the case in Traffic. The Spanish is impeccable, realistic and, in my opinion, Del Toro should have gotten two Oscars for his performance. It’s just that damn good.
Another aspect of this movie that makes it exceptional is its unflinching willingness to make the audience uncomfortable. Erika Christensen (or as I refer to her, the rich man’s Julia Stiles) plays Douglas’s teenage daughter that gets progressively more involved in hard-core drug addiction. If you’re a parent with teenagers, I can only imagine the gut-wrenching thoughts you have as you watch this destructive spiral. On the lighter side, you may want to show this movie to your children as a sort of Scared Sober teachable moment. Just as soon as your kids get out of long-term therapy, I’m sure they’ll thank you for it.
In the spirit of other great movies like Goodfellas and Transformers 2 (just kidding) this is a movie that you can catch at any point while channel surfing, and get hooked immediately. Hooked, you ask, as in get addicted to cocaine, crack, 8-balls, speedballs, heroine, crystal meth, or molly? Yes, it’s that addictive, so view responsibly.
Take a Drink: when Topher Grace is being a prick (pace yourself, it happens a lot).
Take a Drink: when Luis Guzmán tells a joke.
Do a Shot: when you see or hear a reference to a scorpion.
Do a Shot: when you think Erika Christensen has hit rock bottom.