American High

With Traffic, Steven Soderbergh takes on the unwinnable war

If all of this sounds too much like a white paper brought to life -- doctrinaire documentary only masquerading as fiction, complete with appearances from senators Orrin Hatch and Barbara Boxer as themselves -- you need not worry: Soderbergh has created a film that straddles the fine line between thriller and melodrama, a movie that's at once terrifying and heartbreaking without becoming too preachy. (Only toward the end does it slip into sogginess, when Michael Douglas is racing through the ghetto like George C. Scott in Paul Schrader's Hardcore.) These characters are not archetypes, cutouts lifted from a front-page story about policy and procedure. They suffer, they ache, they bleed and they betray -- none more so than Benicio Del Toro's cop, who always looks like a man convinced he's made the wrong decision, even when he's made the right one.

For a film about the dangers of illicit drugs, Traffic possesses its own certain high: It buzzes, never dragging for a second during its 147 minutes. Even more remarkably, a film possessing nearly 100 speaking parts contains no performance better than another; it's never a distraction when big names -- Benjamin Bratt, Salma Hayek, Peter Riegert, Albert Finney -- show up in the tiniest of roles. After the sterile Erin Brockovich, Soderbergh's feel-good movie about people who feel really bad, Soderbergh revels in the grit and grime of this hypocritical world, working as both director and cinematographer (a role he's not played since Schizopolis in 1996). You feel the dirt on your skin, and you want to wash it off. No one gets away clean here -- not the people in the movie, or the people watching it.

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