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Film Review: Traffic

Steven Soderbergh's latest and, possibly, greatest?

It is ironic that Hollywood should have granted Steven Soderbergh its ultimate slap-on-the-back validation, the coveted Oscar, for something he himself has dubbed a "$45 million Dogma movie". Stranger still has been Traffic's commercial success in America, a country generally loathe to draw the political movie to its mainstream core. But then, if anyone is suited to upending expectations and forging new paths, it is the unnervingly productive Soderbergh. He has quietly become something of a happy medium through which the supposed conflict between art and commerce, the indie sensibility and studio line, has reached something of a viable resolution.

Traffic is based on a decade-old British TV series of the same name. In adapting this thorough account of the illegal drug trade for an American audience, Soderbergh nevertheless displays more than just a passing affection for British grit and realism. So intent is he on capturing a documentary-style sense of natural immediacy that the many unwieldy accruements of the typical Hollywood production process are abandoned. In their place, a paired down crew and non-invasive handheld camera, manned primarily by the director himself, elicit impressively natural performances from the assembled cast.

The film abruptly involves us in the lives of several socially, geographically and ethically disparate characters bound by their connection with some aspect of the illegal drug-trafficking trade traversing the U.S. and Mexican borders. Deserved Oscar winner Benicio Del Toro plays Javier Rodriguez, an everyman Mexican cop who, along with his partner (Jacob Vargas), becomes unwittingly embroiled in corrupt and ruthless high-level endeavours to destroy the country's most renowned drugs cartel. Michael Douglas is Robert Wakefield, newly appointed head of the American government's anti-drugs department. He is also father to Caroline, a high achieving teenager, whose drug addiction drives her from the comforting myopia of her affluent and sheltered suburban home. Meanwhile, the heavily pregnant Helena Ayala (Catherine Zeta Jones) is forced to throw aside all vestiges of innocence when her husband's unexpected arrest acquaints her for the first time with his involvement in drug dealing. Helena is watched by two DEA agents played by Don Cheadle and Luiz Goldman. This pair are instantly recognisable as Hollywood's staple "funny-buddy" cop partners and they effectively provide the film with some light relief, offsetting the moral ambiguity of other characters.

Though comprehensive, Traffic leaves you with the sensation that you have merely skimmed the surface of an unrelenting and mammoth process, non-reliant on the compliance of each of its individual human components for survival. All are disposable and replaceable. Soderbergh's documentary-style approach deftly exempts him from formulating any conclusive resolution to the problem around which the film is crafted and it creates the illusion that it is passively observing an organic process. Cliff Martinez' somewhat dazed and confused score compounds its sense of awe-struck disorientation; of the mind-blowing enormity of its own supposed discovery.

However, the film is not without considerable, if predictable, bite. Douglas' role is tidily utilised to contrast America's redundant anti-drugs rhetoric and inadequate legislation with the reality of drug abuse at ground level. Strategically placed periphery mouthpieces, such as Topher Grace (The 70's Show) and Miguel Ferrer, also conveniently highlight some less palatable and politically incorrect home truths.

Traffic is a demanding, pacey and vigorous movie, which can only function on the pretext that the audience will make the effort to keep up with the plotline's various twists and turns. It is far from comforting and for some its emotional restraint may prove alienating. It is, however, well worth a look, if only for the pleasure of watching the exceptional Del Toro once again steal the show.

Elaine O'Regan

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