Steven Soderbergh’s “Out of Sight” (1998)

Hollywood romance absent of affection and flooding with lust.

One of the most genius aspects of Out of Sight is the uncanny way in which director Steven Soderbergh manages to invoke so much emotion from his actors without breaking off of screenwriter Scott Frank’s snappy dialogue. As a selling pitch, the film was more than likely thrown out there the same way it was in the advertisements. Here is a film about a bank robber and a federal marshal who fall in love with one another! Something that sounds great to both demographics of the action-oriented and chick flick varieties. What the casual filmgoer wouldn’t realize, however, is that Soderbergh’s name is behind the entire construction and that, even if he would make the occasional Hollywood genre flick, he’s still got a knack for experimenting within his auteur capabilities. Out of Sight is not as accessible as Ocean’s Eleven, but it comes close by being dripped in a neo-70s heist sensibility. Where it remains hard to connect to, though, is in Soderbergh’s slick way of projecting characters far more complex than you would at first realize. He shifts an entire Hollywood heist thriller/romance into a subtle and intelligent dissection of the complexities of sexual attraction.

It’s funny how Out of Sight has kind of faded away over the many years since its theatrical release in 1998. It was released in the summer with the hype around it being another Pulp Fiction rip-off with Get Shorty cool, banking a bit more on the fact that, as with the latter film, it was based on a novel by the cheeky Elmore Leonard. Add this with the presence of up-and-comers George Clooney (pre-Oscar pet) and Jennifer Lopez (pre-J.Lo diva) and you wouldn’t hesitate it making some cash at the box office. But alas, even with the excessive advertising by Universal Studios, the two Academy Award nominations it received, and the rave reviews from critics claiming it to be one of the year’s best films, it really didn’t get anywhere. Coming close to fifteen years later, the film has yet to really be put out in the open as a great film and has basically earned being described under the “overlooked” label. This is something that would usually depress someone who supports the film as much as I personally do had it not been so understandable why the film never took flight. Even if Clooney and Lopez sizzle on the screen, the film around them doesn’t hold ground in terms of what was promised. This wasn’t the romantic and comedic action heist thriller many were expecting, and anybody who knows the way Soderbergh can be with his direction knows that this is something to expect from him.

Soderbergh constructs Out of Sight in such a skilled way that, with the help of editor Anne V. Coates, he creates this almost supernatural feeling that the film plays out differently with every viewing. Every scene and moment has something further lurking out of sight (tehe… sorry, couldn’t resist…) from the things happening on the surface. There are moments from the actors that bring shades and depths to their clever banter that makes them truly multi-dimensional human beings, even while the screenplay feeds them to us as if they were caricatures. There’s the suave bank robber and his sidekick with a moral conscience, as well as the tough sexpot female fed’s super close relationship with her wiseass father. The rest of the supporting cast is rounded off by sadistic gangsters, task force investigators, those who tie into their subplots and then characters that flash into the story for only a few seconds before completely disappearing. Refreshingly, Soderbergh has pieced together a diverse and natural group of performers who bring a terrifying realism to each part, consuming the viewer in the often hilarious Frank dialogue before turning it on its head and making it seem like a double meaning for something so impeccably uncomfortable. (Take note on Don Cheadle’s character and the way squeezing a goldfish to death plays for both laughs and development to the character’s psyche.)

The lack of a chronological order for the many of the events in the narrative, as well as the many references to similar genre pictures of yesteryear, further brings understanding to what makes the film so slightly inaccessible. When Karen Sisco (Lopez) is being held hostage in the trunk of her own car by bank robber Jack Foley (Clooney), she makes note how she could never understand the love that brews between Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway’s lead characters in the film Three Days of the Condor. “You know, I never thought it made sense, though. You know, the way they got together so quick. I mean, romantically.” In the very situation she says this is when a kind of attraction boils between these two strangers from opposite sides of the law. What started off as a moment in which she uncomfortably has a sweaty and dirty stranger pressed against her backside has morphed from total discomfort to complete sexual desperation in a matter of minutes. On first viewing, the trunk scene can be read so much differently. The advertisements promised this chaotic love story and what the viewer really gets is two people who just desperately want to fuck. But when the film’s most pinnacle sequence at the end of the second act arrives, it comes to surface that Soderbergh has shifted the entire mood and texture of every “romantic” scene between the two leads that had come before it. Unsurprisingly, that certain sequence is the infamous sex scene.

This masterpiece of editing occurs in a classy hotel bar surrounded by the wintry nightlights of Detroit. Lopez’s Karen has already turned down a couple of men who hit on her there, but when Clooney’s Jack shows up dressed in a tuxedo, she can’t help but accept his offer in getting her a drink. They provoke one another in a playfully erotic game of wordplay, referring to one another as different people before finally caving in and admitting their true feelings for one another. How much they would just like to take a time out from the cops and robbers formula of their “careers” and just have sex with one another. And with the simple touch of Jack’s hand on hers (a jarring repeat of the way he touched her thigh in the trunk of the car the first night they met), the two sweep into a whirlwind of flirtatious freedom.

Soderbergh gathers so much from this scene by bathing the heat of the moment in warm amber and copper colored palettes so that even the white snowflakes falling outside the windows of both the bar and the hotel room can’t put out the flame, and thus compliment and foreshadow the iciness that follows in the aftermath of the night. The scene is shown out of order, the conversation at the bar overlapping and going on while we are shown the later events in the night, back in her hotel room, where their passion blazes most viciously. It’s an almost reversal remake of the sex scene in Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, only instead of showing the disconnect between the two characters like Roeg did, Soderbergh is showing how his two characters share an unavoidable starvation for one another’s bodies, so much that they can’t contain their thoughts of it during their chitchat. Karen tells Jack in the bar: “You know, that Sig you took from me was special, my dad gave it to me for my birthday.” “Yeah,” he responds with a horny smile, causing her to change the conversation back to him, bleeding everything back to being just about them and only them.

Karen’s moral code as a federal marshal is shown brilliantly throughout this scene (as well as the entire film, actually), as she processes what she should do for her occupation as a thrill-seeking fed and what she should do for her own sexual needs as a thrill-seeking woman. Throughout the first two acts of the film, it is constantly hinted that she’s a woman with an emotionally masochistic sex drive, as proven by a past relationship with a criminal, as well as her uncontrollable urge to stay in a flirtatious companionship with a married federal agent (played here by Michael Keaton). The performance of Jennifer Lopez here is a tour-de-force of subtlety, where even Karen’s knack for sarcasm and bullheadedness is still matched with a vulnerability. She’s a gorgeous woman trying to work her ass off in a male-dominated workplace (not unlike Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs), but also fails to truly push to the side this strong personal response to suave men that misbehave. This may also be why, at her age, such a beautiful woman as herself has found herself still single and in constant heartache over her short-ended relationships. When confronted by her father (Dennis Farina) concerning her relationship with the married Keaton, she kicks the conversation to the curb, avoiding the pain and keeping her cool as the strong-minded workwoman.

When Karen and Jack engage in sexy foreplay before finally satisfying their hunger, Soderbergh creates these moments with Karen in which the film suddenly freezes for a brief second. This little auteuristic touch happens quite frequently throughout Out of Sight, but it’s only here where it’s used for the sake of diving within a specific character, in this case it’s Karen’s moral brain telling her that it’s perhaps not the smartest thing to become so attached to the very man she is supposed to be putting behind bars. This explains why after they have slept together, Karen walks to the bathroom and stares at herself in the mirror, both disgusted and confused by what just happened. Was she satisfied by the sex? Disappointed? Was she good? When she confronts Jack about the night possibly meaning something more to her than just a one night stand, he instinctively reacts by describing to her a story that separates himself as a smart bank robber compared to the stupid ones that get themselves caught:

“I know a guy who walks into a bank with a bottle, tells everybody it‘s nitroglycerine and he scores some cash off the teller. On his way out, he drops the bottle. It cracks on the floor. He slips in it. He smacks up his head. They get him. The nitroglycerine was canola oil. I know more fucked-up bank robbers than ones that know what they‘re doing and I doubt one in ten could tell you where the dye pack is. Most bank robbers are fucking morons! For you to go to bed with one for kinky thrills like you were saying, makes you as dumb as they are. Now, you are not dumb. Why would you think that? Why would you think that I would think that?”

When Karen comforts his reaction by telling him he isn’t dumb, Jack laughs. “Well, I don’t know about that.” Sarcastic and slightly sadistic, it’s a moment that reveals Jack’s personal response to the sexual encounter. He isn’t emotionally invested in the situation, he’s just proud to have gotten his rocks off – just as he does whenever he finds himself robbing a bank. He sneaks off later that night, returning the gun he stole from her, and possibly hoping to never see her again.

Just by the way these ten minutes in this two-hour film are spliced together and performed, the entire film itself has been turned around. Not just the events following the hotel room, but every minute beforehand. So now, thinking we were being built up for a film with a heist and romance at its climax, we have been shaken into realizing that the ultimate resolution of the picture will be the fierce transition of Karen Sisco from vulnerable woman hiding under a tough exterior to a seriously tough woman who knows what she wants and gets what she wants. While the film’s climax burns on the screen in thunderous amounts of gunshots and humor, the story’s hyped heist at a mansion begins – in which double-crossing is planned against Jack and his partner (Ving Rhames) by fellow ex-prisoners (Don Cheadle and Isaiah Washington) – while Karen finds herself moving in on the violent plot and hoping to bring the criminals to justice on her own. In a completely heartbreaking finale (from a performance standpoint on Lopez’s part, to a directorial one on Soderbergh‘s), Karen is forced to overcome the pain she is suffering from Jack’s pre-one night stand spell and, using the very gun her father bought her (in this case, the very one Jack returned to her after the night in the hotel), she penetrates Jack back, pulling a slug into his kneecap and bringing him down from his high peak at the top of the mansion stairs. Even if she apologizes afterward, she walks away from Jack with the very unapologetic badass attitude she had always been trying to perfect, only this time it isn’t being used to hide what she considered a personal weakness of hers. As her father puts it: “My little girl… the tough babe.”

You would think Out of Sight would fall more on the masculine side of the spectrum as compared to the feminine, but its Karen’s character that owns everything here and really brings it all full circle. The steamy story of good girl and bad guy falling in lust for one another, as well as the development of Karen, aren’t really the only complex strands in the film’s narrative, however. (I didn’t even dive into the complexity in the relationships between Jack Foley and the Ving Rhames and Catherine Keener characters, or the way Don Cheadle and Isaiah Washington are developed in painfully disturbing ways without calling on clichés. It should be noted, though, that almost all of these other subplots revolve around sex as well, and they all circle around the Jack and Karen characters through that theme.) But Out of Sight has so much going for it, and multiple views only enhances the richness in every one of the movie’s scenes. Maybe even more decades from now, the film will start to surface as one of the quintessential 90s thrillers – or maybe it will understandably be even more heavily forgotten about. Every fresh viewing of the film would reveal more and more behind the supposed “romance” that was promised, peeling back strands of an entirely different film; the very one Soderbergh was attempting to make in the first place. It’s all there in the art direction and the cinematography, the editing and the music, the writing and the performances. Like diamonds at the bottom of a fish tank, it might take a while for one to notice.


~ by jerkwoddjh on March 23, 2011.

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