Steven Soderbergh is just a master isn’t he? After the truly superb drama that was “Erin Brockovich,” one would’ve thought he’d sit back and relax a bit with his next film – but instead he’s created an even more impressive effort which may lack that earthiness and smaller scope which made ‘Erin’ so endearing, but swaps it for a more ensemble-driven and technically superior film. ‘Erin’ revelled in its simplicity, ‘Traffic’ glides on its complex array of characters and sub-plots which all intertwine believably and evenly – its a true ensemble with lots of characters getting equal amounts of air time.
The movie focuses on three different storylines. The first involves Michael Douglas dealing with his drug-ridden daughter and the burden of his new position. Of the three, this is the most conventional and sadly the least interesting, and yet it would still on its own prove to be a good film anyway. Douglas gives a solid performance (looking years younger than in films like “The Game”) and stalwarts like Albert Finney & James Brolin give great cameos, though its Erika Christensen & Topher Grace as the daughter and her friend which are the best of this.
Soderbergh’s technical bag of tricks come into play here with pretty much every scene shot outside the family home done in very cold clinical blue lighting to give it a harsh look. The second storyline involves a cop (Del Toro) trying to bring down a drug cartel in Mexico and begins to question his loyalties to his corrupt boss.
As an actor I’ve never been a fan of Del Toro at all but not only does he easily give the stand out performance of the whole film but also one of the best performances of the entire year by an actor in any film – he’s friggin fantastic. He outshines everyone in his storyline with only Jacob Vargas as the almost over-the-top General Sanchez coming close. Again the cinematography here is different with Soderbergh using some kind of ‘Sepia’ camera trick – every scene set within Mexico is shot in grainy yellow/black monochrome. The third and what I thought would be the weakest of the stories turns out to be the best overall.
Zeta-Jones plays neither smarmy or weak, rather a woman who finds herself caught out unexpected by what her husband’s been doing and instead of just fleeing and hiding, she decides to stick by him and in the process becomes a part of it herself. She never goes over the top and is fully believable all the time, and she’s supported by the comic relief efforts of Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman who make a great pairing.
Del Toro may be the stand out character, but the interaction between characters in this sub-plot is my favourite. One could go on about the great things of this movie – the script, the directing, the editing, the performances – everything flows smoothly and whilst the pacing is a little slow like “Erin Brockovich” you won’t notice the time as its too enthralling. So what’s the drawbacks?
Aside from that slight “Been there done that” feel with the Douglas storyline (which could’ve used a bit more editing), the only real thing some might get upset about is the lack of a clear moral tale to it. It doesn’t take a strong ‘No to Drugs’ stand at all but rather leaves things ambiguous which is actually far more interesting and original. This isn’t a film that looks at the effect of the drug trade of society, but rather examines the politics behind it and the key players within – a far more fascinating tale don’t you think. Brilliant on practically every level.