You have never seen a narcotics thriller like this.

“Traffic” is an overview of the contemporary drug scene, using a vast canvas and a spectacularly talented cast. Director Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Stephen Gaghan have created the most bone-chillingly realistic picture possible of the North American drug trade and its distribution. The shrewd choices of characters and locales manage to bring to light a comprehensive account of the Mexican-American drug trade from earnest enforcement officers to government officials, users and victims on both sides of the border, and participants on all sides of the social scale.

Michael Douglas — a newly appointed federal drug “czar” — is at the center of the action, particularly once he discovers that his own teen-age daughter is a drug addict.

Catherine Zeta-Jones, Douglas’ real-life lovely wife, plays the spouse of a major drug kingpin.

As you can see, this is not a squeaky-clean movie. Furthermore, everyone connected with the drug trade is one way or another poisoned by it.

Various Beltway figures such as Barbara Boxer, Orrin Hatch and Don Nickles make brief but very authentic-seeming appearances.

All involved pay a stiff price — although not chronologically. It is a very sophisticated plot. Many villainous characters — such as Catherine Zeta- Jones — receive their just desserts after the movie’s end.

Appropriately enough, some of the individual stories end tragically, others equivocally, perhaps one with a sense of transformation. But none escape without deep scars. The film accepts that there are no easy answers to the huge problems that drugs pose for our society, and that U.S. naivet?, with heavily financed interdiction, isn’t paying dividends. But what is the answer?

There is no answer.

On the Mexican side, the imposing Gen. Salazar, who enjoys a splendid reputation as a drug-buster until revealed to be in on the action himself, is deeply involved. He recruits policeman Javier (Benicio Del Toro) to capture a hired assassin, who is in turn tortured for information that leads him to fateful involvement in the case of the imprisoned Carlos Ayala, husband of the Catherine Zeta-Jones character.

Although she is profoundly shocked at the discovery of her husband’s corruption, Zeta-Jones wastes no time in getting into the business herself. In fact, before long, almost everyone in the film is connected with the drug ring, a connection for which they almost all pay with their lives.

Much of the film is shot with director Soderbergh acting as his own cameraman with “available light” which, in combination with hand-held camera, jump cuts, and jagged rhythms, makes it a strangely intoxicating movie to watch. But the participants pay. Everybody pays. There are no free seats at this movie. Michael Douglas’ teen-age drug addicted daughter is caught up in a good deal of the movie’s action, but eventually she, too, pays.

Back on the Mexican side, in the last scene of the film, good cop Javier — although instrumental in bringing down Gen. Salazar — still has the blood of his partner on his conscience even as he tries to relax at a baseball game. But the blood is still there, game or not.

Incidentally, Del Toro picked up a Golden Globe Award this week for his performance as best supporting actor in “Traffic,” but what’s a Golden Globe Award anyway?

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