Steven Soderbergh in Five Films

From strip clubs to casino heists, few bridge art house and mainstream cinema better

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Ever felt overwhelmed by a director’s extensive IMDB page? In Five Films is here to help, offering a crash course and entry point into even the most daunting filmographies. This is your first step toward fandom. Take it.

When Logan Lucky was initially announced in 2016, it confirmed what everyone knew already: Steven Soderbergh couldn’t stay away from film. In fact, he never really did. From the occasional cinemaphotography gig (Magic Mike XXL, using his known pseudonym, Peter Andrews) to his stint as the director of Cinemax series The Knick, Soderbergh kept a camera close by even after he announced in 2011 that he planned to retire from filmmaking. Well, a sort of retirement, anyways. The term “retirement” did get explicitly used, but Soderbergh walked it back almost immediately, distinguishing a “retirement” from a “sabbatical,” admitting: “It’s less dramatic than it sounds — it’s just a sabbatical… I feel I need to recalibrate, so I can discover something new.”

If Soderbergh needed time to regroup, it’s clear he didn’t need much of it, and that’s not all too surprising. While revisiting his filmography, it becomes all too apparent why Soderbergh will always keep making films: he has way too much fun with the process. Whether it’s a limited-run indie that he’s financed independently or a wide-release studio picture, Soderbergh uses film technique in atypical ways to bring the best out of his projects. Brilliant color production, kinetic editing, and irregular shot selections establish a vision of a man who has no pretensions about the cinematic stories he tells. The soufflé-airy and high-budget Ocean’s trilogy gets treated with the same respect as a stone-faced revenge plot (1999’s The Limey) and a straightforward, psychologically driven indie (1989’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape).

Granted, one could argue that Soderbergh abides by the “one for them, one for me” rule, but based on the craftsmanship that goes into each one of his movies, no matter how mainstream or independent they may be, his rule is really “all for them, all for me.” Because of this omnivorous approach, Soderbergh makes it increasingly difficult for anyone to sum up his body of work in a few films, and this guide is evidence of that conundrum. Nevertheless, the five films ahead should at the very least provide a quick snapshot of Soderbergh’s unparalleled talent in bridging cinematic worlds, whether it’s mainstream and indie features or blockbusters and art flicks. Should he ever decide to legitimately throw in the towel for good, he’ll have left behind an envious cinematic legacy. For now, we should all be glad Soderbergh is back in the game.

Odds are this list will change in two or three or five years.

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An Independent Beginning

Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989)

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Sex, Lies, and Videotape remains one of the quietest splashes in Hollywood history. Released to breathless enthusiasm at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the coveted Palme D’Or, Soderbergh’s debut feature works with very little when it comes to plot and panache. Sure, there’s some of the title’s first vice, but Soderbergh eschews any sleaze and sensationalism for a more psychological experience. Yet, what may appear, in retrospect, to be an unassuming debut wound up spearheading the independent film movement of the ’90s, laying the groundwork for indie auteurs like Wes Anderson or Richard Linklater. Of course, it helped that Soderbergh’s talent would earn the backing of Bob and Harvey Weinstein, who bridged the gap between art house cinema and mainstream filmmaking with Miramax.

Signs of Soderbergh’s talent appear all throughout Sex, Lies, and Videotape, though it would more fully flourish beginning in the late ’90s. The other films of Soderbergh’s early career — Kafka (1991), King of the Hill (1993), The Underneath (1995), and Schizopolis (1996) – exhibit a kind of quietness that Soderbergh would abandon in favor of swanky scores by composers like David Holmes and flashy, ostensibly commercial production. (Admittedly, the word “quiet” ought not be used for the manic Schizopolis, whose wit too often gets undercut by some grating meta-cinematic devices.) Sex, Lies, and Videotape is the archetype of this quiet period, with the entirety of the movie involving intimate conversations, usually between people who have to work their way to that intimacy.

James Spader, a flaxen-haired Adonis in this breakthrough, Cannes-winning role, stars as Graham, a cryptic man who comes to visit an old college friend, John (Peter Gallagher). (As far as extended cinematic universes go, Graham can easily be seen as a young version of Spader’s character on The Office, Robert California, Graham gone to seed.) Not long into the visit, Graham mixes himself up with the lives of John’s wife, Ann (Andie MacDowell), and her sister, Cynthia (Laura San Giacomo). Ann discovers that part of Graham’s mystique is his unusual practice of filming women talking about their sex lives, which is the only way he can achieve sexual satisfaction. As the knots between these four characters become more entangled – John has an affair with Cynthia, Ann begins to develop feelings for Graham – the intimate conversations captured by Soderbergh increase their stakes.

Graham’s erotic connection to video metafilmically comments on the importance of film in understanding people. In Sex, Lies, and Videotape, it’s the latter of the three that exposes both of the former for what they are. Had Soderbergh just called this movie Videotape, he wouldn’t be guilty of any miscommunication. What on the surface appears to be a minor character drama in fact stands as one of cinema’s most valuable examinations of itself. The Weinstein brothers, and indeed the whole art world, were not wrong to get behind Soderbergh’s vision for independent filmmaking. Unlike certain self-indulgent, even masturbatory later films about the importance of the movies (The Artist, La La Land), Sex, Lies, and Videotape highlights the value of filmmaking while grounding it in believable character drama without any pretensions.

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The Hollywood Breakthrough

Out of Sight (1998)

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Elmore Leonard’s fiction should be easy to adapt to the screen. His plots twist into delightfully improbable knots that require zany resolutions. He stages action sequences that nudge any filmmaker reading them to imagine how they might look up on a screen. Then there’s his dialogue, which in the world of fiction is only bested by George V. Higgins, who Leonard cites as a key influence on his writing. Any screenwriter adapting a Leonard novel must feel equal parts relief and jealousy: relief, for how little work the writer must do in transferring Leonard’s pristine, ultra-quotable dialogue; jealousy, for how much the writer wishes she herself had written the stuff.

Due to reasons too complicated to detail in full here, the cinematic success rate of Leonard adaptations skews toward disappointment. Be Cool scraps the smart-aleck metafictional narrative of its source novel in favor of a simplistic plot that reduces Leonard’s clever story into a series of character gags. The Big Bounce would be a third-rate Dave Barry movie, let alone one borrowed from Leonard’s writing. If any director is capable of taking Leonard’s cinematic prose and not only bringing it to screen in a way that reflects the source material’s high quality and makes that material stronger for being on the screen, it’s Soderbergh, a fact that the ludicrously entertaining Out of Sight proves. With a sharp sense of color differentiation, a charm-a-minute cast, and Leonard’s dialogue at his disposal, Soderbergh revived both interest in Leonard’s writing for the screen and his own career fortunes, which at the time were far from ideal following financial and critical flops like The Underneath.

Jack Foley (George Clooney, rescuing his résumé from the cinematic crime of Batman & Robin) and Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez, spectacularly unflappable) meet like all great couples do: in the back of an escape car while one of them flees prison. The chemistry between the two somehow leaps over the hurdle of Sisco’s being a federal marshal and Foley’s being a prison escapee. Yes, Sisco sends some gunshots in Foley’s direction, and Foley continues to evade the law. But in spite of their lots in life, and their opposing interests as criminal and officer of the law, the two keep coming back to each other. A complex plot about a diamond robbery involving numerous competing actors swirls around Foley and Sisco, but Soderbergh keeps the story grounded in the unlikely couple.

Out of Sight can be called a crime film, a romantic comedy, or some mixture of the two. But Soderbergh never fully anchors the filmmaking in either of those styles, which keeps the viewer guessing as to how any given scene will be shot. The opening dialogue between Foley and Sisco in the trunk of the getaway car features multiple long shots, which helps illustrate the way the couple’s initial awkwardness gives way to intimacy. Soderbergh colors the two locations of the story, Miami and Detroit, distinct shades of gaudy orange and steely blue, respectively. Out of Sight boasts enormous mainstream appeal, a fact reflected in its box office receipts, but Soderbergh never lets the camera become invisible, and good technique is as plentiful as good dialogue throughout.

Soderbergh proved with this Leonard adaptation that he and his audiences could have their cake and eat it too. A director who could have so much fun while being so refined is one who Hollywood should keep close by, a lesson studio executives learned quickly as Soderbergh’s profile rose sharply after 1998. Thanks to Out of Sight more than any other of his pictures, Soderbergh has never been out of sight in the world of film.

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An Uncommon Revenge

The Limey (1999)

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The key question to ask in illuminating what makes Soderbergh unique goes like this: “How would a different director shoot this film?” The Limey, his underrated revenge flick, proves an excellent case in point. To a more mainstream-oriented director, the script to The Limey, which tells the story of a man named Wilson (Terrence Stamp, marvelously stone-faced) who flies to Los Angeles from England to avenge his daughter’s death, might look a lot like Taken. The focus would be on Wilson kicking ass in exponentially improbable fight sequences designed to fill theaters with the deafening roar of a thousand bullets all at once. Not long into the film, Soderbergh shows his hand when it comes to filming bloodbaths. After being thrown out of a warehouse while trying to find out information about his daughter, Wilson turns around, draws a pistol hidden in the waist of his pants, and walks back in to the warehouse. Soderbergh keeps the camera trained on a simple long shot of the building. The audience sees nothing, but hears all the gunfire and screams.

A more abstract approach to the scenario of The Limey might not focus on the violence at all, instead emphasizing images related to the hero’s revenge plot or perhaps zeroing in on the mental state of Wilson. Imagining Terrence Malick shooting The Limey, for instance, one can practically hear the esoteric voiceovers and see the restless cuts between shots of gorgeous scenery. I told myself I wanted revenge, Wilson would say, But isn’t what I really want the truth?

Soderbergh’s picture lands in the middle of those two kinds of direction. The gunfire and fisticuffs started by Wilson aren’t Soderbergh’s main story interest, but he doesn’t completely remove them. In addition to obscuring the entirety of the warehouse fight, Soderbergh films a scene where Wilson head-butts a guy and throws him over a railing from a distance through a large pane of glass. Seeing the violence is necessary to the story; reveling in it would achieve nothing. Instead of presenting The Limey as a continuous narrative, from the first flush of the desire for revenge to its fruition, Soderbergh chops up the events of the story, with a major assist from editor Sarah Flack (the unsung hero of the film), presenting them as unstable fragments of memory. In this way, The Limey concerns not revenge on its own terms, but rather the processing of revenge, of understanding what it is that makes a person go to the extremes for the one he loves. The Limey presents the mind on screen, both Soderbergh’s and Wilson’s.

The atypical editing of The Limey results in some of the peak shots and sequences of Soderbergh’s career. The movie’s key villain, Terry Valentine (Peter Fonda), is introduced through a smile-filled montage backed by The Hollies’ “King Midas in Reverse”, an absurd aside that feels cut-and-paste from the title credits of a dark sitcom. The many conversations throughout the film are chopped and screwed into an amalgam of conversations past, present, and future: the chats between Wilson and his confidante Roel (Luiz Guzman) receive the bulk of Soderbergh and Flack’s non-continuous editing.

To complicate The Limey’s editing even further, Soderbergh splices in footage from the directorial debut of Ken Loach, Poor Cow, in which Stamp stars, to provide the elliptical backstory for Wilson. By using Poor Cow as an intertext for The Limey, Soderbergh refracts Wilson’s quest for revenge into a broader history of film. Forget the Marvel Cinematic Universe: Soderbergh thought light-years ahead of the smash-and-quip formula of Captain America and his ilk.

Revenge, even when pursued for seemingly just reasons, distorts the mind. As we follow Wilson’s hunt for absolution, his goals and desires become more opaque. Rather than having Wilson tell the audience about his mental turmoil, Soderbergh shows this struggle through editing that’s simultaneously captivating and unsettling. The Limey asks audiences to piece together the shards of a haunted man’s reminiscence. Even with its tight 89-minute runtime, this movie poses a serious challenge to the viewer. But like he always does, Soderbergh suffuses The Limey with moments of humor and delight. He is at his best when he brings together intricate subject matter and irresistible entertainment, and for that reason, The Limey might just be his best.

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The Art House Con

Ocean’s Twelve (2004)

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If anyone had paid close attention to Ocean’s Eleven, Soderbergh’s remake of the 1960 Rat Pack classic, they would have known what to expect out of Ocean’s Twelve. (Some spoilers ahead for the entire Ocean’s series.) Danny Ocean (George Clooney) and his gang of con artists successfully pull off a heist of three casinos in Ocean’s Eleven by tricking the cocksure casino mogul Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia) into believing his vault is being robbed, when in fact they have distracted Benedict with a staged robbery that they pre-filmed. As Benedict watches what appears to him to be “live security footage” of the robbery, he gives clearance for an FBI team to go in and secure the vault. Unbeknownst to him, the Ocean’s gang intercepted his call, and it is they who go into the vault to secure the 160 million dollars therein for themselves. Out of all the ingenuity and clever manipulation required of the heist, the device of film itself proves to be the linchpin of Danny and Rusty’s (Brad Pitt) plan. Unlike Sex, Lies, and Videotape, where Soderbergh codes film as a medium of truth, in the Ocean’s trilogy it is a means of deception.

Of course, it’s easy to lose sight of that message when there are so many charming faces up on the screen. The critical reception to the Ocean’s trilogy primarily centers on just how glamorous everything is and how ultimately the movies amount to little more than airy, expensively produced fun. Todd McCarthy’s Variety review of Oceans’ Eleven describes it as “a lark for everybody concerned, including the audience. Breezy, nonchalant and without a thing on its mind except having a little fun … which sets itself apart from any other mainstream film Steven Soderbergh has ever made.” Dennis Lim sees Ocean’s Twelve similarly, calling it “a paid vacation for a bunch of people who don’t need one” for The Village Voice. The budgets for the Ocean’s films tally up to $280 million, making them Soderbergh’s largest commercial venture by far. Yet, what the films perhaps overserve in panache they more than equally make up for in depth, especially Ocean’s Twelve, the most maligned entry in the series. Entertainment Weekly, speaking for the critical consensus, listed Ocean’s Twelve as one of the worst movie sequels of all time. As it sometimes happens, critics get a film enormously wrong, and when it comes to Soderbergh, Ocean’s Twelve is easily his misunderstood mainstream masterpiece. He even named it his favorite entry in the trilogy.

A total account of the film’s plot would take up too much space here. What must be highlighted in rescuing Ocean’s Twelve from critical ignominy is its self-reflexive, meta-filmic critique about film’s capacity to deceive. Where Danny, Rusty, and the gang use a filmed heist to trick Benedict into letting them steal his money in Ocean’s Eleven, Soderbergh uses the narrative of Ocean’s Twelve to convince the audience they are watching one kind of movie when they are watching something else entirely.

In Ocean’s Twelve, Danny and his gang find themselves at the wrong end of Benedict’s menacing golf club walking stick, when he finds them all in their post-heist splendor, demanding repayment of what was stolen from him, plus interest. This sends the eponymous 11 to Europe, where they attempt a series of small-stakes jobs in the hopes of accruing enough money to pay Benedict off in two weeks. Upon arriving in Europe, the gang finds itself in competition with a European master thief, Francois Toulour (an irresistibly smarmy Vincent Cassel), who challenges them to a competition: whoever can first steal the prized Faberge Egg, housed in a Roman museum, must admit that the other is the better thief. If Ocean and his 11 win, Toulour promises to pay off their debt to Benedict. As if this didn’t pose enough of a challenge, the gang find themselves being chased by a steely-eyed detective and former paramour of Rusty, Isabel (Catherine Zeta-Jones, in an underrated turn). The odds are against Ocean’s 11, but the prize is too good to resist.

From there, everything goes wrong for Ocean and his men. People end up in jail. Luggage goes mysteriously missing. Infamously, in a last-ditch attempt to beat Toulour, the gang recruits Danny’s wife Tess (Julia Roberts) to pretend to be … Julia Roberts. For much of its runtime, Ocean’s Twelve seems to be a movie about how to fail at being a thief, not a celebration of camaraderie among gentlemen thieves like its predecessor. That is, until a fateful revelation just near the end of the movie, when Soderbergh pulls a 180 on Toulour and the audience, one unparalleled in the history of heist cinema.

Danny and his wife come to Toulour’s Lake Como villa to commend him for stealing the Faberge egg, as he seems to have done. In what remains the iconic scene of Ocean’s Twelve, Toulour recounts a capoeira dance through the great hall of the museum, rolling and flipping his way between a randomized field of security lasers. Smug, smiling, Toulour demands that Danny call him the best, but his victory is short-lived. At that moment, Danny reveals that he and Rusty went to Toulour’s mentor, Gaspar LeMarc (Albert Finney), the day before Toulour challenged Danny. LeMarc gives them a crucial inside tip: the egg was being delivered by an unsecured courier by train to Rome, which enables the Ocean’s gang to steal it well before Toulour sees it in the museum. “You’ll have to put on an elaborate show,” LeMarc tells Danny and Rusty.

“An elaborate show” captures the essence of what Ocean’s Twelve achieves. All the extended failures, slip-ups, and gaffes by the Ocean’s crew amount to nothing more than a distraction for Toulour, and by extension the audience. The film Ocean’s Twelve is itself the heist; the egg amounts to nothing more than a shiny MacGuffin. Soderbergh keeps the audience distracted with the swanky look of his celebrity actors, David Holmes’ blast of a score, and gorgeous European locations filmed with a sensibility of the French New Wave. Soderbergh clearly enjoys a good caper as much as the average mainstream moviegoer, but Ocean’s Twelve shows that the caper film can achieve more than simply illustrating a crime well done. Movies themselves have the capacity to thieve us of our expectations. People came to see Ocean’s Twelve on the basis that it looked like a reprisal of the Hollywood luster that coated its predecessor. What they got is an art film in a mainstream film’s clothing.

Because the audiences of Ocean’s Twelve share Toulour’s hoodwinked fate, it is perhaps no wonder that they took poorly to it. No one likes feeling robbed. But it is a testament to Soderbergh’s filmmaking that Ocean’s Twelve makes being robbed feel like so much damn fun.

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The Indie-Turned-Mainstream

Magic Mike (2012)

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Channing Tatum, naked. Regrettably, for as long as it will stick in cultural memory, Magic Mike will be known for those three words, and for the jeering sleaze of Matthew McConaughey’s strip club owner. “The law says you cannot touch,” Dallas (McConaughey) says on the strip club stage, scanning the crowd of eager women, “But I see a lot of lawbreakers in the audience tonight.” When I saw Magic Mike during its initial theatrical run, I found myself in the middle of a crowd of hollering women who at one point threw crumpled dollar bills at the screen. Soderbergh leans in to the gaudiness of the strip club environment for the film’s first half, with one unforgettable sight gag involving a penis pump (used by Joe Manganiello, who looks like he’s having a lot of fun here) giving the audience what it expects out of this milieu. But halfway through the story of the titular Mike (Tatum), the movie transforms into something more deep and introspective.

A fact often obscured by Magic Mike’s box office success and hunky lead actors is that the movie was independently financed by Soderbergh and Tatum. Watching a trailer for the film, one would be forgiven for thinking it an attempt to rake in millions by getting stars like Tatum to bare all. But the source of the movie’s narrative comes from Tatum’s own experience as a stripper, a job he held when he was 18. Soderbergh’s direction and Reid Carolin’s script focus not on flesh but on spirit, on how stripping for Mike is just a doorway to the American dream: getting a loan and starting his own business. Mike’s protégé and mirror, Adam (Alex Pettyfer), becomes the catalyst for his realization that his lascivious lifestyle offers him nothing but a paycheck. Adam’s sister, Brooke (Cody Horn), also shows Mike another way out, but on stage the dollar bills keep coming, and Mike’s dreams will only come to pass if they continue to do so.

The Miami strip club scene provides a filmmaker with ludicrously good entertainment value. The garish yet irresistible performativity of Mike, Dallas, and the other strippers at the believably misspelled Xquisite club practically guarantees asses in the theater seats, and the colorful Miami locales remain as appealing as they are in Out of Sight. But Soderbergh guides the camera into places that undercut the glitzy sheen of the strip club. He lets us see the grime of Xquisite. He lets the camera loiter when Mike looks the most alone and existentially frustrated. Gorgeous shots of Miami beaches in blue dusk illustrate the core of Magic Mike’s story far more than the rowdy dance routines at Xquisite. Soderbergh doesn’t totally avoid giving the audience what it wants when it comes to nudity, but he gives Mike’s dances and stripteases real emotional stakes.

That Soderbergh achieved so much with a slim, independent budget of seven million – which resulted in a staggering 167 million box office return – evinces his talent in participating in the mainstream while not entirely abiding by its rules. Magic Mike’s success undoubtedly sparked ideas in Soderbergh’s mind for ways to finance a film outside of the major studio ecosystem, a goal that 2017’s Logan Lucky hopes to achieve with its budget strategy. With that film, Soderbergh sold off distribution rights before shooting and, with the help of his actors working for scale, was able to get the project off the ground. Magic Mike cemented what anyone paying attention to Soderbergh already knew: he may not do things by the book, but he gets results.

A sequel to Magic Mike, Magic Mike XXL, was released in 2015. Soderbergh took up the cinemaphotographic and editing work for the follow-up, but Gregory Jacobs sat in the director’s chair. While not a total dud, XXL couldn’t capture the flash-in-a-pan factors that let Magic Mike be the kind of film that it is. Had a studio spent years putting Magic Mike into development, with a large budget in the hopes of securing the largest possible audience, the story would have suffered. Because it got to Soderbergh, the film achieves that all-too-rare combination: crowd-pleasing storytelling enhanced by the spirit of an independent filmmaker. And yes, there are lots of handsome naked people on the screen to look at, but that’s hardly the point.

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