Directed by: Stephen Soderbergh
Written by: Stephen Gaghan, based on the British television series Traffik by Simon Moore
Rating: (4.5/5 Stars)
Recommended by: Alex
Spoiler Free Review:
In the middle of a desert, a drug enforcement officer tells his partner of a nightmare about seeing his mother brutally murdered. A group of privileged high school students sit around doping. At a storage rental facility, two cops descend on a drug dealer. A conservative judge defends the confiscation of a family farm over a small patch of marijuana. And a pregnant woman mingles with her wealthy friends at a golf course, blissfully unaware of what awaits her when she gets home. These scenes open this film, which tells four interconnected stories about greed and addiction, illuminating the futility of America's "war on drugs."
Javier Rodriguez (Benecio Del Toro), a Mexican police officer, has an opportunity to fight the drug trade. He is a complex character, both fiercely dedicated and somewhat corrupt. Caroline (Erika Christensen), a 16-year-old honors student at an exclusive private school, begins treading the slippery slope to drug addiction.Two dedicated cops, Montel Gordon (Don Cheadle) and Ray Castro (Luis Guzman), close in on a large-scale drug importer. Judge Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas) smoothly works the political scene as he becomes America's Drug Czar. Politicians, lobbyists, and reporters chat about the drug problem over scotch and soda (you've gotta love the irony of that). And Helena Ayala (Catherine Zeta-Jones) has to protect herself, her son, and her unborn child when her husband is arrested for drug trafficking.
As a rule, I don't enjoy "message" movies, and this film's message is clear: the "war on drugs" will never be won through law enforcement. Granted, I couldn't agree more with the message. I'm a former prevention specialist and adolescent substance abuse counselor -- they're preaching my religion. And my husband has been a police officer for nearly 20 years. He's had a glimpse of what's going on "in the trenches," and I think I can safely say he holds no hope for the efficacy of drug enforcement.
Nevertheless, this is the kind of movie I don't generally fall in love with. And at times, the message is delivered with all the subtlety of a hammer to the face. At various points, throughout the film, a character speaks directly about why the "war on drugs" is tragically futile. It's a bit like an old-school play in which the action freezes, for a moment, while an actor turns to the audience to explain what they're seeing on stage.
That's one of my peeves in films -- why don't writers and directors trust the intelligence of their audience? When a point is being illustrated vividly, through strong writing, acting, and direction, why look over your shoulder, wink, and directly address the audience?
It's a tribute to this movie that, despite the fact that it represents several things I dislike in films, I fell in love with it. Realistic dialogue, phenomenal acting, and a style of cinematography that often reminded me of news footage or a documentary made virtually every part of this film seem natural and real. Yet at the same time, it was slickly plotted like a thriller. This seems like an unlikely marriage, but these filmmakers deftly pulled it off.
This film is, for the most part, relentlessly grim, yet I found it surprisingly enjoyable -- even humorous. You wouldn't expect this to be a "fun" movie, yet, in many ways, it was. This is partly because of the thriller-like plotting and pacing and partly because of the rich character development. In a movie with only a few "good guys," who are wonderfully flawed, all the main characters -- including those who are morally repugnant -- are multidimensional and fully human.
Ultimately, it was the brilliant storytelling and magnificent acting, along with an in-depth treatment of this subject we've rarely seen in American media, that blew me away. Despite its flaws, this may be one of my favorite movies of all time.
As an aside, I hope my husband will watch this movie with me -- I'm very interested to hear what he thinks, especially about the law enforcement aspects of the film.
Some Additional Thoughts (Spoilers):
- Evidently I've been watching WAY too much "Big Bang Theory" with my family. During the scene where Monty and Ray close in on the armed drug dealer, who's hidden in the ball pit, I kept expecting the perp to pop up and yell "Bazinga!" :-P
- O.K., let's get back on a serious note. I don't remember ever having seen Don Cheadle in a film, but I'll be looking out for him. He was magnificent. Those scenes after he lost his partner, Ray, to a car bomb broke my heart.
- I can't tell you how badly I wanted to bitch-slap Barbara (Amy Irving) for the way she enabled her 16-year-old daughter's addiction. She overlooked her daughter's drug use for six months because she felt like Caroline "needed the space to figure out things on her own." She was even willing to give her kid a pass when Caroline and her friends dumped this kid at the door of the emergency room, after he'd overdosed, and tried to make a quick getaway. Forget the bitch slap, I wanted to punch her.
- On that note, since this film looked at various aspects of addiction, I'm really glad it addressed the issue of enabling.
- I never appreciated Michael Douglas as an actor -- I'd only seen him in crap like Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct. He was phenomenal. In the scene where Robert (Michael Douglas) makes his daughter Caroline's boyfriend Seth (Topher Grace) lead him to the drug dealer's apartment -- where Robert's 16-year-old kid has been prostituting herself to feed her addiction -- Robert gives Seth this look as they're walking back to the car. Oh. My. God. All I can say is I hope nobody EVER fucking looks at me that way. I will never forget that moment.
- I'm well past the first blush of youth, so I never expect to want to punch a teenager. But damn. Seth is such a pretentious, arrogant little prick.
- And the scene where Robert finally finds his daughter, passed out in a grimy room, and has to chase out the guy who was paying her for sex ... Holy Mother of God! Michael Douglas deserves such accolades for that moment. I actually burst into tears.
- Oh, Helena. You are so screwed. I don't particularly like your character, but you won my respect for being "mama bear," prepared to do anything to protect your little ones. But damn. You've crossed over to the dark side now. And you're gonna go down.
- There's a gorgeous scene where Javier has to tell Ana (Marisol Padilla Sanchez) about her husband's death, omitting his own role in it, of course. It seemed to be shot in almost sepia tones. Oh my God. The dead look in Ana's eyes. I'll never forget that.
- If this movie offers a shred of hope, it's in the last few scenes. We see recovering addicts actively working 12-step programs and a new lighted baseball field keeping Tijuana's youth off the streets (well done, Javier). Rehabilitation and prevention. There you go.