Human Traffic made a hell of a feature debut for its writer and director Justin Kerrigan at the back end of the 20th century. A pill-popping tale of a mad weekend among McJobbers in Cardiff, Wales, it’s a film unashamed, delighted in fact, to bring us drug-taking as it is experienced by those who do it most – from Friday night euphoria to Sunday comedown – as fun, an escape, a lark.
We’re talking about ecstasy, this being 1999, and the film was so of the moment that the UK newspaper The Guardian called it “the last great film of the nineties”. The paper was rushing on its own euphoria but there is an undeniable freshness to the film. Kerrigan wrote it when he was 23, living the life, and it has the urgency of despatches from the front line. As to the “great” label, there’s nothing that ages as quickly as a film about youth culture, May’s “block-rocking beats” being staler than “Hep cat daddy-o” by December. Ah yes, “block rocking beats” – the soundtrack, includes Underworld, Fatboy Slim and Orbital and was supervised by Pete Tong, a DJ so famous at the time that his name had become rhyming slang.
But there is timelessness in here too. Look no further than the performances of the cast. John Simm and Shaun Parkes are the real standouts, and I think this was the film debut of Danny Dyer, who’s managed since to parlay that druggy hangdog thing he delivers here into an entire career.
Kerrigan is, if anything, a better writer than he is a director. Among the inspired scenes in Human Traffic is one in which a TV news reporter does a drugs expose speaking in jive-talk he reckons is “street”. It is a piece of grade A observational comedy. Which brings us to the real reason why the film hangs together – it wrings comedy, pathos and drama out of character, rather than soap-style psychological exposition or the standard set-up/pay-off gag structure. Which is very unBritish, almost French even. And it does, quite unashamedly, love its drugs.
A word on versions. For authenticity, go for the UK original version. The US retread doesn’t do terrible things to the language, merely clearing up a few chin-scratchers that just don’t translate, but it does make some visual cuts on moralistic grounds, which surely is just plain wrong. As for the 2002 rehash, Human Traffic Remixed, this has been disavowed by Kerrigan and his star John Simm.
© Steve Morrissey 2013