The most celebrated film of the year, Steven Soderbergh's Traffic is being hailed as both a modern masterpiece and an important indictment of America's ineffectual war on drugs. Most North American critics have identified Soderbergh as the latest "thinking person's" filmmaking messiah, as if he has risen from the black soil of Baton Rouge, La., to save American cinema from the evils of formulaic Hollywood movies. Oscar buzz has been swirling around this picture and his other year 2000 release, Erin Brockovich, louder than flies over the bloated carcass of Arnold Schwarzenegger's dying career.
Traffic's triptych of kinetic drama follows three distinct stories which run side by side, each taking up one facet of the impossible war on drugs. First, we are introduced to a Mexican cop named Javier Rodriguez. Played by the brilliant Benicio Del Toro, Rodriguez is torn between the attractive possibility of selling what he knows to help bring down Tijuana's reigning drug lord--or keeping quiet and saving his best friend Manolo Sanchez's life when Sanchez (Jacob Vargas) becomes intoxicated by small-time influence after falling in with a group of powerful people.
On the other side of the tracks--or border, as it may be--things spiral out of control when a San Diego would-be drug trafficker is busted by two DEA operatives played by the underrated Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman. This stool pigeon is the DEA's star witness against a wealthy dealer, Carlos Ayala (Steven Bauer), who lives in the tony suburb of La Jolla, Calif., with his pregnant wife Helena (Catherine Zeta-Jones). She is so busy ruminating over subjects like the pros and cons of consuming game fowl for lunch that she remains oblivious to the true source of her country club lifestyle. Her husband, thriving on America's insatiable appetite for drugs and Mexican officials' dependence on bribes, has had an especially bullish decade.
The final story centers on über-confident Robert Wakefield (Michael Douglas), an Ohio State Supreme Court Justice who has just been appointed as the nation's drug czar. Unbeknownst to Wakefield, while he is in Washington regurgitating rhetorically limp "tough on drugs" speeches, his teenage daughter (Erika Christensen) is at her preppie boyfriend's mansion sucking on a crack pipe.
Upon returning home, Wakefield has a telling conversation with his wife (Amy Irving), in which he sneers that he doesn't have a drinking problem, he just needs his scotch before dinner "to keep from dying of boredom." This nod to parental tension serves to justify his otherwise together daughter's growing addiction, but it doesn't make the characters in this segment any deeper than after-school-special archetypes. When Wakefield must decide what he truly believes in, rhetoric or real life, the conclusion is both predictable and disappointingly mundane.
The filmmaking style in Traffic certainly has all the trappings of modernity. It is elating to witness a big-budget Hollywood movie allowed to make as many intelligent choices as Traffic, and even more exciting that the film is raking in gobs of money. The most obvious of the director's decisions is the visual presentation: Using a shaky cinema verité hand-held camera, Soderbergh lends the film the look of "reality," a style which has become the current visual voice of popular culture, thanks to a parade of Fox Television reality programs. Contrasting beautifully with this ultra-contemporary glaze, the sepia tones of the Mexican thread of the film give the story a sun-bleached, antique postcard appeal.
Another of Soderbergh's wise moves was to allow the Mexican characters to speak Spanish with subtitles, rather than the laughable Spanglish Hollywood so absurdly forced into the mouths of Spanish-speaking characters during the past century. (Similar bilingual efforts in Proof of Life and All the Pretty Horses point to a hopeful trend in this direction.) In Traffic, nothing could have been more tragic than to bastardize Benicio Del Toro's lively Spanish phrasing with hard American English consonants. That would have been a symbolic clipping of his tongue, which is what happens, literally, to the Marquis de Sade in Philip Kaufman's new film, Quills.
Like Traffic, Quills is a morality tale, in which the choices of individuals appear to stand for all of society. Set mostly in the notorious Charenton insane asylum, the film follows the last days of the Marquis de Sade (Geoffrey Rush) as he ignites into a Molotov cocktail of psychic energy after his writing utensils are taken away in punishment for his publication of incendiary prose.
While the Marquis is central to the film, continuing to scribble with everything from wine to blood to his own feces, the protagonist is not the legendary sadist, but the abbé who imprisons him. Like the character of Traffic's Robert Wakefield, Abbé Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix) must choose between words and reality, between the Church's teachings of about self-control and the Marquis' insistence on human freedom.
The underground publication of de Sade's naughty Justine makes a foppish Napoleon decide to "cure" the Marquis once and for all of his foul vice. To Charenton, Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Caine) is sent to straighten things out, and he is the worst of the world's hypocrites, a sadist disguised as a moralist. He gets his rocks off torturing folks in dunking chairs and iron maidens. This fetish is so profound that he actually overshadows the Marquis' famous capacity for sadistic action.
As the overseer of Charenton, Coulmier finds himself in the middle of these two titans of titillation, knowing his very dream of a kind and gentle asylum is at stake. For most of the film, he remains a guarded admirer of the Marquis, repeatedly reaching out to him by appealing to his faith or reason. The Marquis reinforces the friendship by putting into words the abbé's carnal feelings for the lust-worthy Miss Madeleine (Kate Winslet), who shares the glandular itch for the abbé. Alas, Coulmier has the "God" problem and is thrown into an existential malaise out of which he never fully stirs. When eventually Madeleine's friendship with the Marquis puts her into grave personal danger, the abbé's climactic sin is one of omission, but it is still a decision he can never take back.
Despite all the hype about Traffic's hand-held camera and bleached film stock, and despite its 18th-century setting, Quills is the more modern, original film. Character-wise, Traffic ladels out the usual Hollywood soup of good people and bad people, and makes it relatively easy to tell the difference. In Quills, the Marquis stays as slippery as he has been for all of history, a man who would die to keep touching people with his work, even it killed them, too.
Furthermore, the issues important in Quills are shockingly contemporary: censorship and the morality of art. As embodied by the Marquis, freedom of speech (and, by relation, art) starts in a pleasant but secure prison, then gets stripped of its pen and paper, then its clothes and finally gets thrown into the deepest dungeon, chained around the neck like a dog. All of this is done in the name of guarding the innocent.
In this presidential election year, which found two candidates jockeying to outdo each other in condemnation of Hollywood excess, an exploration of the Marquis de Sade's story is more timely than ever. And because the new administration's attack on free expression is so thinly disguised as an effort to protect children, Quills is a much-needed defense of one of the fundamental rights we as Americans still have.