It is sometimes argued that one of the primary functions of popular film or broadcast fiction is to reassure audiences, and to confirm them in their beliefs and values. How does Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic illustrate ways in which film-makers may seek to disconcert audiences and challenge their beliefs and values?
Using a straightforward narrative can leave the audience with only one perception of a certain issue. Traffic has three different stories going on at once so this will give you three different points of view on the same issue. Which means the audience has to do more work and try to decide what their own beliefs about drugs and drug taking are.
Using a multi-strand narrative means that the audience has to do the work to fully understand what is going on throughout the film. If the audience misses a scene or two it is very difficult to figure out what is going on afterwards.
In Traffic you see so many different outlooks on drugs and drug taking. Bob is trying to fight a war against drugs whilst his own daughter Caroline is taking drugs with her friends. Drugs are providing many people in the film with jobs, such as Carlos, Edwardo Ruiz and Monty and Ray. Drugs nearly ruin Helena’s life when the leader of one of the cartels is threatening to kill her son if they do not get back the money they are owed.
In Traffic you are quickly introduced to the heroes and villains of the film. You see the two men being arrested in Mexico by Javier and Manolo who are quickly exposed as being police officers. You also see Carlos Ayala being arrested by federal agents in front of his wife and children. You also see Monty and Ray going to see Edwardo Ruiz who we soon realize is bringing in large drug shipments.
The only characters whose true identity you don’t really understand is that of General Salazar and Helena Ayala. To begin with my thoughts were that he seemed to be on the side of the Mexican police officers Javier and Manolo but I felt that there was an uneasy, untrustworthy element to Salazar’s character, which was eventually brought out. Helena enters this film as a caring mother, sitting down to lunch with her friends to talk about their children. As soon as her child is at risk it is amazing to see how far she will go to keep her child safe. Even distribute dolls made of cocaine that may be sold to children in other countries.
The subject of children is definitely prominent throughout this movie. Characters are constantly referring to children, you hear children playing in the background in some scenes. I think that Soderbergh is trying to put forward the message that children are at risk from drugs.
I think that the adult viewers of this movie are intended to relate to Robert Wakefield. What happens to him and his wife is every parent’s worst nightmare. He has a very well paid and high ranked job fighting against drugs when suddenly he doesn’t feel as though he can continue what he is doing when he realises that he is fighting this war against his own daughter Caroline Wakefield.
Caroline started by taking a bit of free-base with Seth, a boy she knows from school who the audience do not know anything else about. The fact that she has still got into drugs when her father has sent her to a private school to get away from drugs sort of fits in with the slogan of the movie “nobody gets away clean.” As though there is no escape from drugs and drug taking. From there on it is a slippery down hill slope, she is so desperate for drugs that she starts sleeping with the drug dealer, there is a significance that the drug dealer is black because she does not know him he has grown up in different surroundings and lived a different life to her. She has also started injecting drugs and selling her body for money by the time Bob finds her. It puts out the message that if you try a bit of free-base it is going to send you on this slippery downhill slope, you are going to end up living the same desperate life of Caroline. But this is obviously not a proven fact.
The ending of this film is fairly typical of the way that other films end in that everything is tied up nicely with Salazar being killed, Javier getting the lights that he wanted at the children’s baseball park. Ruiz is killed and Carlos is released, Helena is happy. Caroline has successfully made it through rehab, Bob is happy. But a couple of things are still left open such as the bug that Monty manages to place under the table in Carlos and Helena’s house, Monty has placed it there because he knows that Carlos is guilty and he wants revenge for his partner. People wonder whether Caroline will successfully stay off the drugs or whether rehab will not have the desired affect on her and she will continue the way she is going.
The framing of this movie is a lot different from the framing you would normally see in a Hollywood blockbuster movie. A lot of the camera work is very rough and unprofessional. This adds a documentary style look to the camerawork that is not normally seen in this kind of blockbuster movie. All of the different stories within the film seem to be filmed with a different colour wash, a very bright, hot and uncomfortable yellow for Mexico and a cold and gloomy blue for America.
When the boxes of drugs are taken out of the back of the van that Javier and Manolo pull over, it is as though the cameraman is not supposed to be there and is concealing the camera and filming it secretly. I don’t think that any of the actors are filmed differently because they are more well-known, depending on what country the scene is in they are always filmed in the same lighting with no emphasis on the well-known actors. This is another element that adds to the effect of the documentary style filming, the better known actors are not brought out as the stars of the movie, they are seen in the same way as the less well-known actors.
I think the target audience for this film is teenagers who can relate to Caroline and the situation that she gets into, and adults who can relate to how Bob and his wife are feeling.
A lot of different people would have very different reactions to the film. Such as a Mexican would not be happy with the way Mexico and the people who live there are shown in the film. I don’t think that a black man would be happy with the way that a black man plays the drug dealer who takes advantage of a teenage girl and carries a gun.
All of the characters we see are the kind of characters we expect to see in this kind of film. We have the cops and the drug dealers, ‘good-guys’ and ‘bad-guys’. We have Bob and his wife, the normal American couple with a daughter who has become a bit of a rebel in her early years. We have the typical scenario of a lot of films where the husband is arrested in connection with drugs but leaves behind a debt that puts his wife and child in danger.
The editing in Traffic is very choppy. In ten seconds of film there may be up to three cuts within it. This adds to the documentary look on the screen. It also makes the audience feel uneasy and have to work harder to understand what is going as Soderbergh leaves out a lot of sections that the audience needs to figure out for itself.
A number of important scenes have no diegetic sound. This also adds a confusing and uneasy feel to the film.
The most interesting symbol in the film is the doll made of cocaine that Helena shows to the head of the cartel. This is interesting because it refers to children again. This is a child’s toy from which the cocaine may be sold to many children when it reaches its destination. Helena is prepared to sell drugs to other children as long as her own child is safe.