Directing the Directors: Steven Soderbergh: The Limey

M8DLIME EC011A mercurial exercise in pure cinematic economy, a gangster tale cut-up and reinterpreted through director Steven Soderbergh’s shattered-glass editing, The Limey is Point Blank dressed up as Hiroshima, Mon Amour. Actually, that’s dismissive. The Limey doesn’t don the exterior garb of a modernistically scrambled study in memory. Soderbergh’s film feels modernism down to its very core. It bleeds vibes of fragmentation, cracks into pieces before our eyes, and in protagonist Wilson’s mind. Played by Terrence Stamp in the performance of his life, Wilson is the lightning-rod around which Soderbergh’s coiled energy and recklessly frazzled editing anti-rhythms commune.

Stamp’s Wilson is, more or less, on the war path to find out who killed his daughter, and presumably to kill them as well. Brutally spare and with all ornamentation and sub-plot terminated, the Spartan aesthetics demand that we acclimatize to the borderline inhuman specificity and single-minded thrust of Wilson’s quest. So it’s a revenge tale, which now seems like the oldest genre in the book, a study in a frigid and immutable man, but Soderbergh adds an ever-mutating, always-leaping cinematic style trapping that man in the parade of perpetual motion he has drawn himself into. Or editor Sarah Flack does, slashing Wilson’s macho poetics by throwing them into a blender, stitching scenes together out of shards of broken cinematic glass, producing a colossally twitchy, jittery work that feels, like Wilson, unable to settle down. Wilson’s quest might seem easy, or assured, or morally unimpeachable. But the editing constantly and demonstrably forces us to consider new perspectives with each shot, to treat Wilson’s quest not as a foregone conclusion but as an experimental exercise in seeing the world reconfigured in new ways, or, rather, exactly the way Wilson, with all his monomania, cannot.

The nucleus around this loosely hung film is Stamp though, whose extraordinarily fungible performance is mournful and reflective but electrically charged, and he vacillates moods with Soderbergh’s chopped-and-diced editing routines which push the infamously pointillist sex-scene from Don’t Look Now off the deep edge of non-linearity. Stamp’s many Shakespearean monologues are stripped of their homogeneity, sliced into pieces with different shots for different lines, visualizing a man who lacks even the sense of peace to connect his speech together. The Limey is a true exercise in cubistic poetry, all the more alienating because it was released immediately after Soderbergh’s most sultry, seductive, emotionally sybaritic film, Out of Sight. The two are ice and fire, respectively, and a remarkable duology in oscillating tones, a reflection of Soderbergh’s dexterity as a filmmaker.

A year later, Christopher Nolan’s Memento – a good film as well – was the critical darling, but The Limey is even more radical. With its backwards plot that nonetheless unfolds in easily digestible, linear chunks, Memento is an exercise in putting the pieces back together. The Limey’s pieces aren’t even solid anymore. It’s a liquid film, porous moments infected with other moments, dialogue diffusing into alternate scenes through osmosis. One conversation will frequently drip into an image from the past. Memento was obviously about a man with a less-than-lucid grasp on his own eternal present-tense, a guy who wants his past returned to him, but The Limey is a film that lacks a present altogether, a work that cannot achieve its own peace of mind. The film twitches before our eyes, like the scenes are blinking. And this is when they aren’t actively replaying themselves multiple times, and never in the programmatic way that, say, a self-consciously “clever” filmmaker like Tarantino or Shane Black might do. While those directors are top-down narrative exercises in play, The Limey is nastier still, as though it is scratching a tonal itch that won’t diminish, exhibiting a nervousness that it can’t nail the scene down properly and needs to try again for fear of its life.

Befitting a film about time as a troubled state, half-remembered filigrees of the ‘60s speckle the film like ash from a volcanic eruption that happened long ago.  Stamp’s antagonist is played by Peter Fonda, both performers willfully evoking shells of their former selves, and The Limey ruptures the swagger and cool of that era by icily fragmenting it beyond sanity. Most enticingly, The Limey infuses itself with the spirit of that bygone era by rendezvousing Stamp’s toxic, collapsed then-present self with his warmer, keener, younger self in the form of flashbacks to the Kean Loach Stamp-starring film Poor Cow.  Actor, character, performance, and identity comingle to the point where Stamp becomes a type, an icon figure in the gangster idiom, part of genre cinema’s central DNA that Soderbergh is reorganizing and breaking down at a molecular level.

Stanley Cavell once wrote that a movie star’s appeal across diffuse roles was that they could retain their essential self – that Terrence Stamp was Terrence Stamp no matter who he was playing – and that we, the audience, could hope to hold on to ourselves within the many social roles we play. Soderbergh questions the value of that retention, asks why we would want to be our 1960s self in the 1990s. The editing is constantly changing, promising a motile world, but Stamp’s character seems is locked in his past, a man of perpetual stasis.

The late ‘90s was all Swinging ‘60s revival and Cool Britain, the Spice Girls and Oasis and Austin Powers, pop cultural detritus floating around in the memories of the past and trying to crack open the long-dead mojo of the ‘60s for a chance at the golden alter themselves. The Limey is the anti-Cool Britain film, not simply a work about a violent man but a violent work, a work where the very cinematic cornerstone – the shot – is harrowingly unstable and prone to falling apart in front of us as other shots, lines, and images violate it. Not only, it seems, can we not easily access the past, but we may be forever withheld from a present that is unwilling to rest for us. Hunting for another life, then, is a paradoxical torpor of perpetual motion, leaving you lost in a past goal – unable to move on – and continually prisoner to the movements and machinations you have set in motion by acting out of revenge.

A study in cracked experience, The Limey proposes a life that can’t stop and focus on each moment as it happens, but instead rambles and rough-houses with the memories of the past and presentiments of the future. Once upon a time, Sean Connery guaranteed that he – and vicariously, the ‘60s pop edifice that Connery was a totem to – was “shocking”. The Limey demands we consider the full implications of that term, having our perceptions of “cool” shocked into clarity and epiphany, revealing all the era’s pitiful, tragic anti-glory.

Score: 10/10

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