‘Gritty’ is one of those terms that is often thrown around without a thought in film reviews, applied equally to films shot on handheld digital camera and any work of cinema in which a character is gunned down execution style. The original British miniseries Traffik is one of those rare works that really earns the adjective.
Traffik paints a disturbingly effective portrait of the corrupt officials, ineffective law enforcement policies and communities of impoverished, desperate farmers who make up the backbone of the global heroin trade. And as it moves in and out of stories, tackling several seemingly disparate plotlines and weaving them into a tale greater than the sum of it’s parts, Traffik presages an entire generation of critically acclaimed dramas.
If imitation is in fact the sincerest form of flattery, then the filmmakers behind Traffik should feel very flattered, indeed. From Steven Soderbergh’s Hollywood remake of the film to works like Crash and 21 Grams, film after film has borrowed the structure of this lauded, epic miniseries, but few have used it to full effect achieved by the original Traffik.
Director Alastair Reed and writer Simon Moore manage the difficult test of blending multiple, intersecting storylines deftly, shifting between stories to build tension in each plotline. They also manage the heavy lifting of story editing admirably, refusing to take easy ways out and avoiding the heavy handed deus ex machina that too often burden the film’s cinematic descendants. Each tale operates according to it’s own internal logic while also contributing, often in ways that aren’t immediately felt, to the globe spanning story that lies at the heart of Traffik. This fine sense of plotting, combined with a phenomenally ambitious scope, let keep Traffik feeling brisk while it moves at it’s own deliberate, unhurried pace.
Despite a storyline that demands not only attention but interaction from the audience, Traffik stays lean, moving from one plot thread to the next like a prizefighter, never letting viewers get a read on where the next punch will come from. Even the sometimes implausible coincidences that tie the narrative strings together seem reasonable, even natural in Traffik, thanks mostly to great writing and terrific performances that lend everything on screen a sense of believability. Two decades after it’s initial release, Traffik still feels like it is taking place in the here and now — unfortunately, the continuing instability of the region make that all too close to the truth.
Twenty years on, it’s at once compelling and depressing how timely and contemporary Traffik feels. This is the measure of a classic piece of art, to be sure, but it is also a sad commentary on the current state of geopolitics and the ineffectiveness of the ongoing worldwide war on drugs, a war that claims whose victims have rarely been depicted as sympathetically and humanely as they are here. Because of the empathy it engenders, Traffik is the best kind of hard to watch. It is brutal and direct, entertaining and compelling. It presents itself as what it is and makes no apologies or compromises. It is a work brimming with quiet confidence, a work that does not care if you like it, which makes it that much more difficult to turn away from, even when you want to.
Reid pulls the audience in with extreme close up shot while simultaneously jarring viewers with sudden cuts from story to story. From life in the slums of Karachi to the ins and out of an international drug smuggling ring, Reid uses a keen and unflinching eye to make the fantastic seem everyday, and render the mundane profound. He is also aware that sometimes the story of a relationship is best communicated in what isn’t said, and is refreshingly unafraid to use silence as an effective filmmaking tool and equally at home stretching a quiet moment between two characters to build tension and simply letting audiences take in the rugged beauty of the Pakistani landscape.
It is these brave directorial choices, an eye for detail and an expectation of the audience as more than just a passive observer that make watching Traffik an experience not for the faint of heart. With a total run time of about six hours, viewing Traffik is a rare endeavor in culture today — a piece of entertainment that makes significant demands on it’s audience, rewarding committed viewers with an intelligent, thought provoking cinematic experience. It’s an experience that benefits nicely from the interviews with filmmakers and the extended version of the series itself included in this 20th anniversary release.
There are some blemishes on the film, notably in the film stock itself, which even in this newly remastered version from Acorn Media feels seems to feel every moment of it’s age. And while most of the performances are excellent, the writing is prone to occasional oversimplifications that make the characters seem near parody. But moment that ring false are few and far between, and are in part simply attributable to the fact that in a huge piece of work, not everything will go off exactly as it’s producers would have liked. Traffik is, after all, a symphony on film. And as it reaches it’s punishing crescendo and then fades, it is not the few sour notes that stay with one, but the feeling of being party to something greater than oneself, something visceral and unique.