There are few directors as chameleonic and prolific as Steven Soderbergh. After a slower run of 90s work including Kafka (1991) and Schizopolis (1996) he now has at least one new film out every year and even when dealing in genre pieces such as this, his homage to Mike Hodges' Get Carter (1971), he's adding something avant-garde to the proceedings. Cast your mind back to last years The Informant!, a playful comedy about whistle-blower Marc Whitacre (Matt Damon) which uses a deceptively comic voice-over to keep the audience from looking at what is really going on (embezzlement). Soderbergh smartly takes us directly into the psyche of Whitacre, relaying his thoughts, concerns and theories to keep us inside the box - and then devastate in the quietly regretful ending. Same thing with Traffic (2000) - a pretty straightforward interlocking-narratives drama about the drugs industry; those trying to stop it, and those funding it. Soderbergh once again mixed things up with juxtaposing styles of cinematography (blue and yellow) and some interesting handled camerawork. Perhaps the only contemporary filmmaker to match his consistent level of genre swapping is François Ozon (8 femmes, 2002). But none of this comes close to the spectacle that is The Limey, an incredibly underrated crime gem from 1999 - the year of the new movie brats.
Sofia Coppola, P.T. Anderson, Kimberly Peirce, Sam Mendes, Spike Jonze, Alexander Payne and David Fincher all confirmed themselves as riders on the new wave of American cinema in 1999 - a revolutionary year that included Magnolia (Anderson), Boys Don't Cry (Peirce), Being John Malkovich (Jonze) and Fight Club (Fincher). Soderbergh had already made his name in 1989 with the OSCAR nominated, Golden Palm winning Sex, Lies And Videotape, but it probably wasn't until 2001 heist caper Ocean's 11 became a hit that his name was a box office draw. Throughout the 90s he made interesting but underseen (and now mostly forgotten) work, quirky and inventive enough that, had it been released now, among the works of Charlie Kaufman and Michel Gondry, might have been more successful. The apex of the decade though was The Limey starring an on-form Terence Stamp, living up to his name as he stomps flat-footed through violent scenarios, chewing up the script and scenery as if they were a buffet ("Tell them I'm fucking coming!") Once again the reason why the film works (it's a pretty straightforward thriller, even following the same structure of Get Carter) is the way Soderbergh plays with cinematic technique - this time, with editing.
The Limey is an arthouse revenge movie. An arthouse revenge movie that introduces its villain (Peter Fonda) with a musical montage. Funnily enough, it's totally serious. For a filmmaker clearly shooting with his tongue in his cheek, The Limey is a remarkably straight-faced movie that deals with the concepts of guilt and vengeance. Wilson (Stamp) is a career criminal making up for lost time by buying into the theory that violence begets violence. He wastes no time with explanations or apologies - one scene sees him wait patiently for a thug to come his way. A second of conversation passes before Wilson punches the heavy and throws him over a balcony. His brand of rhyming slang ("Now look Squire, you're the guv'nor here, I can see that. I'm in your manor now. So there's no need to get your knickers in a twist") may raise a smile but Wilson is a hardened killer set on finding the truth. And Soderbergh enters the psyche of this man through the art of film editing.
Borrowing and mixing techniques from the nouvelle vague and Eisenstein's (Stachka, 1925) 'montage' theory (see his seminal literary work 'Film Form'), the editing in The Limey can be confusing, but if you're paying attention, highly rewarding. The obvious techniques to note are the jump cut and the fade. Rather than wasting time watching a character unpack his bag or drive a car we cut straight to the chase of any event. Some events, including one of Valentine's (Fonda, the villain) thugs beating Wilson, is edited with a fade to make the scene move faster and also create a dreamy quality as the violence escalates. The best technique though, is cross-cutting, which propels us backwards and forwards from the current scene in order to either move the plot forward or provide necessary exposition. The way in which Soderbergh employs this technique (alongside the jump cuts and fades) is what makes it revolutionary. The style allows you to be in three places at once, being fed information while studying the physicality of the performances. It's genuis. Of course this was probably Soderbergh's idea but credit must be given to one of the most underrated film editors in the business today - Sarah Flack.
A regular of Sofia Coppola (she brought you this wonderful sequence from Marie Antoinette, 2006, and also edited 2003's Lost In Translation) she has also worked with Sam Mendes on Away We Go (2009) and Michel Gondry on Dave Chappelle's Block Party (2005) - crafting works of immense visual power. Along with director Soderbergh, she says goodbye to the script and forms a narrative through the art of shot coordination. Of course, every film uses its visuals to tell a story - film is a visual medium. Look, for example, at Uzak (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2002), a Turkish drama focusing on the evolving relationship between a recently divorced man and his cousin. Ceylan (one of the best filmmakers working today) uses the art of direction and photography to convey his message - the lonely, static shots and sparse yet beautiful images add to the films feeling of loneliness and distance - the spaces between spaces. Soderbergh's film is well directed and it contains some wonderful photography - look no further than the scene where Wilson stands on Valentine's balcony, surrounded by pointed architecture (blue sculptures, almost like a sharks fin, allegorical to the nature of the villain) as the sun sets over the nearby forrest and day turns to night. But these images, unlike Ceylan's, don't propel the narrative.
The Limey, more than any other film, made me realise the many ways in which a story can be told in film. Pre-1927 Hollywood didn't have the liberty of sound (this changed with The Jazz Singer, Alan Crosland, 1927) so all stories had to be told through performance and title cards. As film has evolved sound design has become a more important way of telling stories - think of the openings of Wall-E (Andrew Stanton, 2007) and There Will Be Blood (P.T. Anderson), the beautiful naturalness of Innocence (Lucile Hadzihalilovic, 2004) or the nauseating drone of Irreversible (Gaspar Noé, 2002). And of course direction and photography are as important as ever - look at the films of Terrence Malick, in particular Days Of Heaven (1978). But editing will continue to be the least appreciated film form until more movies like The Limey enter the mainstream - and change the way we accept stories. Seek it out...