The Mexican Connection

Reviews of the latest films.
Jan. 5 2001 3:00 AM

The Mexican Connection

Like a good TV show, Traffic merges the pulp thriller with drug war headlines. 

Traffic
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
USA Films

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When I saw Traffic, I had no idea that the director, Steven Soderbergh, had photographed the movie himself under the pseudonym "Peter Andrews," but what I kept thinking was: "Whoa, Soderbergh's really diving in off the deep end." The framing goes beyond documentary realism and into a druggy zone all its own: sloshy and off-center, with a color palette that's preternaturally sensitive. When characters feel fear, the action moves fast—too fast—yet seems distant and unreal. You could get high on this movie's technique, dizzy on its storytelling. Yet it's one of the most lucid bad trips ever made.

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Traffic has three overlapping narratives, none terribly novel, but the shivery camerawork and odd juxtapositions keep you off-balance. American prep-school kids freebase while Mexican generals torture drug-cartel assassins; Mexican cops watch as captured suspects (and their cocaine) get whisked away by Mexican troops while, over the border, undercover Drug Enforcement Administration agents collide with clueless American cops; Washington politicians (real ones) hold forth at Georgetown cocktail parties on the "drug war" while high-priced American lawyers conspire to murder key witnesses. One tentacle doesn't know what the other is doing, there's a third one snaking underneath, a fourth undoing whatever the first has managed to do, and a fifth writing speeches. The director seems to be signaling that anyone who sees order in this mess is either a liar, a fool, or both—a politician.

That's what Traffic is, explicitly: a letter bomb to proponents of the "drug war." One of its several protagonists (Michael Douglas) is a hard-ass Ohio Supreme Court justice who has been newly appointed the nation's "drug czar"; and when he announces that he's off to the "front lines," you're meant to think, "Where would that be, hombre?" He assumes that it's Mexico, where he's planning to meet with a fervent but shady general named Salazar (Tomas Milian); but back in Cincinnati his angry and depressive high-school daughter (Erika Christensen) is sitting with her supersophisticated rich-kid boyfriend (Topher Grace) swilling beer, taking hits off a bong, and then sampling a crack pipe during sex. Talk about "Wait 'til your father gets home"!

That's a pretty facile irony, the drug czar whose daughter degenerates into a crack whore—and Douglas' agonized, pop-eyed trek through the underworld (reminiscent of The Searchers by way of Paul Schrader) is the movie's most familiar plot device. The details make it play: the all-knowing chatter of the preppies while they overdose; Christensen's ecstatic surrender to a kind of death; Douglas' marriage to a tense Amy Irving, which he freely admits is tolerable only with liberal injections of vodka. Soderbergh and the screenwriter, Stephen Gaghan, tweak us with references to booze and coffee and sugar—to an economy powered by addiction. But they don't embrace a libertarian position. No one who depicts crack-cocaine in this light would ever want to see it (or its less instantly devastating sibling) available on demand.

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Traffic is based on a 1989 British miniseries that I've never seen. Its focus on process and implicit suspicion of rhetoric don't feel very American (i.e., Hollywood). Nor do its other characters' trajectories. A rich Californian businessman (Steven Bauer) is arrested, and his very pregnant wife (the very pregnant Catherine Zeta-Jones) learns from his lawyer (Dennis Quaid) the true source of her husband's income. Will she leave him and the fabulous life they've been leading, or will she do anything to hold on to the status quo? You can't exactly love her decision, but you'll recognize and maybe admire her slit-eyed determination to keep her family intact. Soderbergh treats her not disdainfully but with a kind of tender fatalism: This is one kind of good mother.

In last week's "Movie Club" in Slate, I was unduly quick to jump on the Village Voice's J. Hoberman for his comparison of the Taiwanese drama Yi Yi to television; he responded that it wasn't necessarily a slur. Traffic, with its roots in English TV, is television in the best sense. It's roomy enough to hear from all sides, as when a drug-dealer-turned-state's-witness (Miguel Ferrer) lectures two DEA agents (Don Cheadle and Luis Guzmán) on the ludicrousness of their mission. There is a kind of Nightline earnestness to this enterprise, but that's not a bad thing: It hearkens back to a tradition of pulpy thrillers that tackle the big issues of the day. Where it differs is in its lack of answers—and in its soul.

That soul is embodied by Benicio Del Toro as a Mexican policeman called Javier Rodriguez. The sleek and broodingly handsome actor has added weight to his frame and to his line readings—they come out slow and lazy, almost parodic of movie Mexicans past. At first, when Rodriguez advises some American tourists to pay a bribe to authorities to get their stolen car back, you think he's just casually corrupt, but then you realize that he has simply learned to pick his fights. He doesn't sweat the small stuff, but he has a spine that's craftily hidden beneath that flesh and that shiftless delivery. No other good guy in Traffic gets everything that he or she wants, but Del Toro's Rodriguez manages to stay alive, expose a brutal drug-lord, and get the U.S. government to build a park for night baseball in his neighborhood. As he smiles and watches a game, the scene could be Soderbergh's answer to the right-wing politicians who denounced Bill Clinton's crime bill for its provision on "midnight basketball." You fight the drug war one day—and night—at a time.

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In the Movie Club, I also groused about not being invited to any House ofMirth screenings and suggested that its PR company didn't consider me a "real critic." Well, they do! Apparently it was an honest mistake (I got merged with someone else on the database), and the company, mPRm, never intended any slight. My copy of House of Mirth just arrived by FedEx, and while I'd rather see it on a big screen, I appreciate the company's effort in getting it to me pronto and look forward to writing about it—and other holiday releases slowly opening across the country—in the coming weeks.

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