The recent release of his psychological thriller, Side Effects, may mark the end of Steven Soderbergh s career as a filmmaker. The director has announced his intentions to retire from the movie business and while Behind the Candelabra, his made-for-HBO biopic about Liberace, still has to be released, Side Effects may be the last time a Steven Soderbergh film ever plays in theaters. Of course, people are naturally skeptical about whether or not Soderbergh will stay permanently retired, but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s had one of the most unique and diverse directorial careers of all time. After his low-budget debut film, Sex, Lies, and Videotape, became a surprise commercial and critical success, Soderbergh would help inspire the rise of the independent film in the 1990s. Unfortunately, the director would spend most of that decade making low-budget films which usually drew praise, but never made a dent at the box office. Soderbergh didn’t become a true A-list filmmaker until 2000 when he managed the impressive task of directing two hit films, Erin Brockovich and Traffic, which both received “Best Picture” nominations at that year’s Academy Awards and garnered him a “Best Director” Oscar. After that, Soderbergh would split his time between doing mainstream blockbusters like the Ocean’s Eleven movies and independent, non-commercial projects such as Bubble and The Girlfriend Experience. However, Soderbergh’s first major attempt to break into the mainstream was actually his 1998 adaptation of the Elmore Leonard novel, Out of Sight. Though the film drew a lot of critical praise, it was only a modest success at the box office and was unjustly ignored at Oscar time. It remains criminally underappreciated today because, in my eyes, not only is Out of Sight Steven Soderbergh’s best film, it’s also one of the best films of the 1990s.
Out of Sight begins with one of my all-time favourite opening sequences. We are introduced to a career bank robber named Jack Foley (George Clooney), who has recently been released from prison and made a failed attempt to go straight. In a brilliant scene, Jack makes a spur-of-the-moment decision to rob a bank and pulls it off without even needing to use a weapon.
Jack is arrested for the crime and the next we see him, he is serving a 30-year sentence at the Glades Correctional Institution in Florida. He devises a very clever breakout and is supposed to be picked up by his loyal friend, Buddy (Ving Rhames), but unfortunately for Jack, a U.S. marshal named Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez) just happens to be in the parking lot when the escape takes place. When Karen tries to stop them, Jack and Buddy are forced to kidnap her and put her in the trunk of their vehicle. Jack climbs into the trunk with Karen and during the getaway, some unexpected sexual tension starts to develop between them.
Jack and Karen eventually part ways, but it’s clear that there’s an attraction between them. Jack continues to contact Karen while he’s on the run, and there are numerous opportunities when Karen could bring Jack in, but chooses not to. Through several flashback sequences, we eventually find out Jack’s entire backstory and learn that he served time in prison with a wealthy Wall Street embezzler named Richard Ripley (Albert Brooks). Jack and Buddy’s dim-witted, perpetually stoned sidekick Glenn (Steve Zahn) has learned that Ripley is keeping a fortune in uncut diamonds at his mansion in Detroit and has organized a heist to steal them. Unfortunately, Glenn has also got himself mixed up with a dangerous crew led by the psychotic Maurice “Snoopy” Miller (Don Cheadle), who also a history with Jack in prison and will not hesitate to kill him and take Ripley’s diamonds for himself. Of course, Karen travels to Detroit to find them and eventually meets up with Jack in a hotel bar. The interaction between these two characters makes for one of the most complex and fascinating cinematic love stories of the past twenty years. True to form, Soderbergh shoots their key sequence in a very unconventional fashion, cutting back and forth between their dialogue and eventual sexual tryst.
To give you an idea of how much Hollywood has changed these past 15 years, this was a time when people were still unsure if George Clooney could make it as a movie star and also thought that J-Lo might turn out to be one of the best actresses of this generation. Clooney was splitting his time between ER and lead roles in movies, and while his screen career got off to a promising start with From Dusk Till Dawn, he followed that up with quite a few duds, the nadir obviously being Batman & Robin. However, Out of Sight proved to the naysayers that Clooney had the charisma and acting chops to be a Hollywood leading man and he’s never looked back. Now, obviously, Jennifer Lopez’s filmography has taken quite a dip in quality since Out of Sight and this still represents the peak of her acting career. However, she is genuinely terrific in the role of Karen Sisco and inhabits her strong character so well that she probably should have gotten an Oscar nomination. Lopez and Clooney have undeniable chemistry together, and you only have to look at her interactions with Ben Affleck in Gigli five years later to wonder where it all went wrong. While the love story between Jack and Karen is the heart of Out of Sight, the movie has so much else going for it. Pulp Fiction is the most influential crime movie of the 1990s and would inspire many copycats for years to come. But because Quentin Tarantino was heavily influenced by the writing of Elmore Leonard, the success of Pulp Fiction would help turn big-screen adaptations of Leonard’s novels into a popular trend. Out of Sight came on the heels of successful screen versions of Get Shorty and Rum Punch (adapted into Jackie Brown by none other than Tarantino). It captures the spirit of Leonard’s original novel perfectly and also has a few touches of Tarantino-inspired black humour, such as this scene, which is one of the funniest deaths ever captured on film.
Out of Sight features all the trademarks of Elmore Leonard’s writing, including a non-linear structure, colourful characters, and witty dialogue. None of the characters in this story are dull or uninteresting as even the minor players get their fair share of memorable moments. In addition to the fine work of Clooney and Lopez, the entire cast does a first-rate job. One of the neatest scenes in the film is the surprise appearance of Ray Nicolet, a character who was featured in both the original novelizations of Out of Sight and Rum Punch. Since Michael Keaton portrayed Nicolet in Jackie Brown, he reprises his role for a brief cameo here. It’s little touches like that which elevate Out of Sight above your standard crime thriller. Elmore Leonard has always followed a rule that many writers tend to forget: thrillers are so much more interesting when the characters drive the plot instead of the other way around. Scott Frank had previously written the screenplay for Get Shorty and does another outstanding job at adapting Leonard’s material to the screen. While the story moves at a leisurely pace at times, it never ceases to be entertaining and always somehow manages to hit the right notes. It all leads to an unconventional conclusion, which is different than the original ending to the novel, but is still immensely satisfying and stays true to these characters (and also features another delightful surprise cameo). Soderbergh has always claimed that Out of Sight was his attempt to finally break out of the “art house ghetto” and move onto bigger things. While it would still be two more years before he found mainstream success, this film certainly sent him down the right path and began a very impressive run for him. It’s amazing to think that he managed to direct Out of Sight, The Limey, Erin Brockovich, Traffic and Ocean’s Eleven all within one three-year period. If we have indeed seen the last of Steven Soderbergh, it’s important to remember the films which made him successful, and as far I’m concerned, Out of Sight showcases him at his absolute best.