Directing the Directors: Steven Soderbergh: Traffic

2000-traffic-05Logan Lucky, the comeback film of the formerly-but-not-really-retired Steven Soderbergh, is out this month, and the return to cinema of one of the great filmmakers of the past quarter-century is obviously something to celebrate. I’ll do so with a few reviews, the only way I know how. 

Nominated for two Best Director Oscars in one year, Steven Soderbergh won for Traffic, arguably his peak harmony of critical and commercial success and among the most piquant Best Director wins ever. Within reason, of course. It’s still an Issue film, so it’s in the Academy’s wheelhouse. (They’d never do the unthinkable and commit heresy by giving it to a genuine work of directorial singularity like, say, Wong Kar-Wai’s, Edward Yang’s, or Bela Tarr’s films from the same year, Stanley Kubrick’s from the year before, Terrence Malick’s from the year before that, or David Lynch’s from the year after Traffic. You get the picture). But for a somewhat safer film, as well as a work where the “radicalism” is programmatic and pampered enough to be immediately obvious to any viewer, Traffic is a volatile, agitated, uncovered nerve of a movie just waiting to be poked.

Just a year before Traffic’s release, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia was being inundated with a swarm of Robert Altman comparisons, but Traffic nails Altman’s bleached, wandering milieu and his cacophonous clatter of motion with more aptness than Magnolia. Anderson’s film was great, spirited drama, but it was Altman by way of MTV, a new school cynic with far too ferocious a tempo to really understand Altman. Soderbergh’s film is better still, a more paradoxical blitzkrieg that is more dehydrated, equally as scorching as Magnolia but more sun-scorched as well. Sun-sickened even, if we focus on the Mexican member of this tripartite story, a ménage à trois that turns into a tangle of lost and misjudged lives, withered and misplaced minds, unfinished projects, and an unkempt, matted knot of dashed expectations. The hustle and bustle of North American life turns to jostle and jaundice.

Especially during the Mexican portion of the film, Soderbergh re-embraces the twitchy hand-held palette of ‘90s indie filmmaking he helped instigate and mines it for its expressive potential, twisting turn-of-the-century apprehension and alienation into full-on anxiety. But Traffic’s real divergence from the faux-verite realism of ‘90s cinema is the reality-conflicting quality of its resonantly and defiantly artificial cinematographic color-coding (courtesy of Soderbergh by way of his alter ego Peter Andrews). More than a mere affectation, the oscillations in color are an enamel that seeps into the very core of the film’s mosaic of characters. The discrepancies in color (which extend to the lensing as well) evoke not only the various atmospheres of certain character mindsets but reveal the inability of these various characters to meaningfully empathize or even consider the minds of other people. They seem permanently locked into their stylistic prisons, unable to inhabit not only different geographical regions but other mental architectures, fundamentally non-compatible states of being.

Soderbergh drowns us in a scintillating, snake-stung, malarial yellow for an exploitation-adjacent vibe for the story of Mexican border officers Javier Rodriguez (Benicio del Toro) and Manolo Sanchez (Jacob Vargas) who partner with the DEA to bring down their corrupt boss who works with the cartel that infects all aspects of life on both sides of the border. As an austere, hideously formal counterpoint in mood and idiom rather than simply narrative content, the story of ruthless anti-drug judge Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas) is drenched in a calcified blue, evoking an aggressively frigid ice-box of a life. The deliberately unresponsive texture of these scenes, drained of emotional expressivity, embodies Wakefield’s stymied connection to the outside world, his static and internalized refusal to place himself outside of his capitalistic American individualism. His worldview is staunch, and Soderbergh’s cinematography effuses this unforgiving quality.  Exacerbated by his daughter Caroline Wakefield’s (Erika Christensen) drug addiction, the haunting and glacial pace of these sequences is the antithesis of the (admittedly stereotypical) flaring heat of Rodriguez’ story, which radiates its own elegiac mournfulness.

The third wheel here is a San Diego tale of missed connections and stunted appearances bifurcated into two related parts, one the story of Helena Ayala (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a cartel boss wife who turns to increasingly vindictive and violent measures to maintain her wealth and pampered life status. The final peg is the cohabitating San Diego imbroglio DEA agents Montel Gordon (Don Cheadle) and Ray Castro (Luis Guzman) enter into as they attempt to bring down high-profile drug seller Eduardo Ruiz (Miguel Ferrer). Shot in a near-fluorescent, highly overexposed color style that focuses us on the externals of appearance and wealth, the San Diego portion of the film invokes not an all-encompassing, soul-seeping mood like the others but a functionary resistance to mood, a lifestyle that is addicted to lacking emotion and denying mood.

The resultant film is a modern aria, a meditation on a theme more than a narrative proper, culminating in a rattled, addled mosaic of modernistic perspective-prisms about the  general aura of life in various mental encasements. Despite Soderbergh’s commitment to digital and the aesthetic possibilities of videotape, Traffic is a film bursting with the possibilities of celluloid, whether it be the physically unwell Mexico shot-through with imperfect film grain to the frozen repellent of the Judge’s passionless subzero life to the unapologetic vacillations between them. It’s more vigorous form of the color-coded idiom Soderbergh experimented with in The Limey, but where it was a garnish there, it’s arguably the main ingredient, or at least a full marinade here. By the standards of Oscarbait, it’s electric, a best case scenario. In fact, the extremities of the coloring, which are obvious and defiantly un-subtle, only better the film, transforming the cinematography from some secret private trick on Soderbergh’s part to an overwhelming onslaught. The style goes beyond story-accompaniment and into a new, transcendent realm of emotion, and the vacillating, never-still tempo and tone of the picture constantly and pointedly undermines itself, creating a self-annihilating film that incessantly contradicts its own built-up arguments and styles and therefore never lets us settle into a rut of meaning or purpose. Rather than anointing one narrative as the closing statement on the war on drugs, Traffic cross-pollinates a full gamut of styles and feelings without considering any one the definitive or essential take.

Soderbergh’s stylistic oeuvre is remarkably inhospitable to totalizing statements, and so is Traffic, although it undeniably suggests America’s drug crisis as a void with no path of escape. It isn’t abnormally revolutionary, particularly from the filmmaker who made Schizopolis, Full Frontal, Bubble, and a number of others, and the screenplay by Stephen Gaghan isn’t remotely as compelling as Soderbergh’s direction, particularly in the vaguely dire and largely silly sub-plot involving Wakefield’s daughter. But Traffic might be the virtual ideal for a compromise between the artistically conservative Hollywood Issue Picture machine and the left-of-center auteurist individualism of the Soderbergh impulse. It harnesses disparate stylistic energies for a ragged but diamond-cut treatise, and it incorporates a full fleet of best-in-career performances, including from Benicio Del Toro (who became famous on the back of his Oscar winning role) to Michael Douglas (icing-over his macho stoicism into a portrait of a man who hardness is life-leeching) to Catherine Zeta-Jones. One of the 21st century’s great war films, Soderbergh plays it, bursting with moral relativism, as a war that runs the gamut from hot, cold, to everything in between.

Score: 9/10

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