The Limey represents the end of a turning point in Steven Soderbergh’s career. It had only been a decade since sex, lies, and videotape made him the golden boy of a resurgent American independent cinema, but his experiences in the interim seemed to burn him out. “Getting Away With It,” Soderbergh’s book of journal entries and interviews with Richard Lester, was written just before production began on Out of Sight. Throughout the book, it’s obvious that he yearns to break from what he would later call the “tyranny of narrative”—the cinematic expectations that handcuff our ideas about storytelling. Three films helped reenergize his focus: with Schizopolis, he ventured completely into the realm of experimentation, invoking convention only as a means of poking holes in it. With Out of Sight, he infused the familiar framework of Elmore Leonard with non-linear elements and a healthy dose of ‘70s flourish; the result was his most successful project since sex, lies, and it was proof that he could break the perceived chains of narrative even in a purely Hollywood production. Somewhere in between its two predecessors, The Limey completed Soderbergh’s change of pace and set the stage for the rest of his career.

Get Carter as made by Alain Resnais.” That’s how Soderbergh described his approach to The Limey before he entered production. The story is about as high concept as it gets—Wilson (Terence Stamp), fresh out of a long stint in British prison, comes to America to find out why his estranged daughter Jenny was killed. On a baseline narrative level, the movie never becomes more intricate than that. Wilson finds his daughters’ friends and colleagues, asking them what and whom she was involved with. It leads him to suspect that Jenny’s ex-boyfriend Terry Valentine (Peter Fonda), a wealthy record producer, was the key player in her death. The back half of the film is simply a showdown between Wilson and Valentine, each awaiting the others’ move.

What separates The Limey is how it works within (and escapes from) such a straightforward, generic framework. The easiest description would be that the editing is completely non-linear, but not in the sense that the film is shown out of order. Its traditional through-line remains largely intact, but individual scenes are treated as conversations and moments that transcend time and space. As Wilson talks to Jenny’s friend Eduardo (Luis Guzmán), their exchange may follow a specific structure, but the first lines are spoken in Eduardo’s backyard, the next in a car, the third set of lines in a new location and the fourth back in the backyard. Parts of the dialogue overlap or reoccur throughout the film, taking on new context each time.

Soderbergh treats his imagery in a similar fashion. There are glimpses of both the past and (multiple) possibilities of the future. There are flashes of the mundane interspersed amongst the dramatic. In a move that seems so simple, yet rarely used, Soderbergh uses footage from Ken Loach’s Poor Cow to show Stamp as a young man with a young family. The intended effect seems to represent Wilson’s yearning for the days before he was separated from Jenny. The grainy, sepia-toned warmth of those clips provides a counterbalance to Wilson’s present dealings. Color has always been integral to Soderbergh’s direction, and many of the scenes here are defined by a dominant shade. There’s an overwhelming amount of blue, yellow or green present in certain scenes; in many cases, this would read as a signifier of Wilson’s unbridled rage, but here it’s something different.

The collection of sounds, images and colors may well represent the fragments of Jenny that Wilson is trying to put together. There are some flashbacks that show Jenny with Valentine, but they’re hazy, as if they’re Wilson’s half-formed interpretations of the events. That’s how the entire film seems to operate—the style is a function of Wilson’s memory, and “Jenny” is an abstraction to him, at best. It gives his quest for vengeance a meditative quality, a longing for the opportunities he missed thanks to his prison time and her untimely death. The investigation is his only means of getting to know Jenny, rendering it capable of transcending time, space and even the revenge it leads to. Supporters and critics alike acknowledge some amount of detachment in Soderbergh’s work; in the case of The Limey, he’s hiding the heartbreak in plain sight. Just enough for it to hurt when you realize it’s there.

Soderbergh followed The Limey with a directing Oscar for Traffic, the commercial success of the Ocean’s franchise and a mixture of television work, low budget features and genre films with big-name stars. While he’s found ways to subvert the tyranny of narrative in virtually every film he’s directed, The Limey sets a clear precedent for films like Contagion and Haywire—genre-specific films operating on a wavelength all their own. Even if it didn’t help set the stage for the evolution of an important American filmmaker, The Limey distinguishes itself amongst a largely indistinguishable crop of like-minded films by dealing with its rigid expectations in an unexpected way.

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