Blip Magazine Archive


Home : Archive : Links

Rick Warner

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

As part of his acceptance speech for winning the Best Action Sequence category at 2002’s MTV Movie Awards, Pearl Harbor director Michael Bay dedicated his trophy, a gilded popcorn tub, to the victims of the actual attack; then just before bragging about making an action star out of Nicolas Cage (who’d presented the award and stood nearby in a snakeskin blazer), Bay claimed to make real movies for real people, or something to that effect. Along similar lines, M. Knight Shyamalan graced the cover of a recent Newsweek promoting Signs: he stood alone among cornstalks, hands on hips, stylishly dressed, confident, a strand of earthy beads dangling at his throat. The cover boasts, "The Next Spielberg," presuming that’s the compliment to end all compliments.

Moviegoers deserve better advocates. Bay more or less gratifies crowds with fireworks, and Shyamalan offers less than his reputation might suggest. Though The Sixth Sense was clever and promising, it apparently infected Shyamalan with a "surprise ending" neurosis, as both Unbreakable and Signs suffer from eleventh-hour contrivances; Hitchcock, an influence of Shyamalan’s, could get away with such contrivances by visually and emotionally distracting audiences from them, but at least for now, Shyamalan lacks that skill. And there are countless other mainstream filmmakers who linger in the spotlight with respected reputations but debatable talent: Oliver Stone (excessively self-aware), Cameron Crowe (better suited for light comedy as evidenced by Vanilla Sky), Michael Mann (proficient visually but an average storyteller), Ron Howard (a timid embracer of PG-13). Spielberg has been at the forefront of mainstream cinema for the span of his career, rarely less than competent, a master of the action-adventure genre. But when he turns to more ambitious projects—Schindler’s List, Amistad, Saving Private Ryan, A.I., or more recently Minority Report—his status as an artist seems open to question. He typically avoids taking narrative risks, his stories for the most part remain pretexts for spectacle, and he tends to redundantly underscore sentimental morals; consider the "earn this" or the "you still have a choice" mantras that imbue Saving Private Ryan and Minority Report respectively.

I don’t deny his importance. The Sugarland Express is too often overlooked, and Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark are, in their own ways, both masterpieces. He espouses a certain belief in people that departs nicely from cinema’s trend of cynicism, and if his films can offer escape to say, a single mother of three who just lost her job, then they provide a valuable service. But to some extent he actually hampers film appreciation. Through appeasing viewers with emotionally-charged glitz, he impairs their willingness to actively watch and interpret. This isn’t to say that entertaining movies can never be artful or vice versa—those two qualities are hardly opposites. I’m simply suggesting that when mediocre films masquerade as art films, they sometimes finagle both critics and moviegoers, leaving them to believe that films like A Beautiful Mind or Titanic represent the best of what cinema has to offer. And as for those who see through this ruse, they might dismiss mainstream films as altogether fraudulent and substandard.

It seems the best mainstream cinema often comes from filmmakers who have experience working independently. The Coen brothers, for instance, first gained attention in the early 1980s with their low-budget neo-noir, Blood Simple. Since then, they’ve managed to both entertain mainstream audiences and grow artistically; Fargo, arguably not their best film, earned Oscars in1996 for best actress and original screenplay, and received a best picture nomination. Likewise, since Reservoir Dogs (1992), Tarantino has balanced his massive commercial and critical appeal. But the movies of the Coens and Tarantino have seldom if ever been deprived of adequate attention. Perhaps Steven Soderbergh, who collected accolades in 2000 for Traffic and Erin Brokovich, provides one of the best examples of an extraordinary mainstream film that audiences for the most part ignored—1998’s Out of Sight.

The National Society of Film Critics, noted for its bias toward the highbrow, named Out of Sight as the 1998’s best picture and Soderbergh as the year’s best director, cold-shouldering Oscar contenders like Saving Private Ryan and Shakespeare in Love. The film also appeared on various critics’ top 10 lists and re-established Soderbergh’s prominence, which had been in limbo since sex, lies, and videotape. But for all of its critical success, Out of Sight disappointed at the box office, grossing only $37 million domestically (the same year Saving Private Ryan and Armageddon both exceeded $200 million). As to why audiences kept their distance, it could have been an issue of timing, since dramas released before the Oscar season begins tend to be forgotten; Out of Sight opened in mid-June, and the flood of summertime blockbusters possibly obscured it. Or perhaps George Clooney’s legitimacy as a film actor was an issue for viewers, since at that time he was still trying to shake his image as ER’s heartthrob; Jennifer Lopez, conversely, had yet to emerge as a pop music icon, so her presence was unlikely to sway viewers. Or maybe Out of Sight’s slick surface made it appear slight, a crime caper full of gunplay and wisecracks, a cheap follow up to Get Shorty or another impotent Pulp Fiction knock off. Anyone who bought into these or other misconceptions simply missed the boat. In spite of the film’s apparent polish and flair, Out of Sight entertains on multiple levels and is as artfully executed as any number of well-regarded "heist" films, including such classics as Rififi (1954), Bob Le Flambeur (1955), The Killing (1956), Big Deal on Madonna Street (1958), and Topkapi (1964), not to mention more recent examples of the genre like The Usual Suspects (1995) and Sexy Beast (2001).

It is a truism that any film’s success involves collaboration among artists, but this is particularly the case with Out of Sight. Scott Frank adapted the screenplay from Elmore Leonard’s novel of the same name, effectively channeling Leonard’s razor sharp dialogue and ironic tone. But some of the film’s most interesting and pivotal scenes are completely Frank’s creations. Take, for instance, the steamy bathtub sequence with Jack Foley (Clooney) and Karen Sisco (Lopez) that turns out to be Karen’s fantasy—Frank invented this scene in attempt to convey the sense of longing between Foley and Karen that permeates Leonard’s book. Frank also came up with the movie’s bittersweet conclusion which allows for different interpretations (more on this later).

Out of Sight’s performances are equally accomplished. Leonard’s vibrant supporting characters always seem to exist beyond their service to the plot, and the screen version of Out of Sight similarly allots scene-stealing potential to almost every role: Buddy Bragg (Ving Rhames), a beefy but nervous sidekick who often functions as Jack’s counselor, robs a woman’s vehicle right after he loads her groceries into its trunk; Glenn Michaels (Steve Zahn), a hapless burn-out perpetually in sunglasses, inspires laughter each time he opens his mouth; Maurice "Snoopy" Miller (Don Cheadle), a fight-throwing boxer, is both amusing and disturbing when spouting thuggish dialogue like "You don’t like what I’m sayin’, you just bounce the fuck up out this whip anywhere along up in here"; Richard Ripley (Albert Brooks) is a corrupt and ungrateful millionaire who stores his spare toupees in his bulletproof bedroom safe; Kenneth (Isaiah Washington), Snoopy’s ferocious accomplice and brother-in-law, boxed professionally until he had his "retina detached two time"; the massive White Boy Bob (Keith Loneker), another henchman of Snoopy’s, concerns himself with pilfering steaks instead of a fortune in diamonds; Chino (Luis Guzman), a mumbling Hispanic fugitive, inquires about a magic trick while being handcuffed; Jack’s ex-wife Adele (Catherine Keener), an out-of-work magician’s assistant, smacks of Miami Vice garishness while smoking and holding her pet rabbit; Karen’s father (Denis Farina) baffles her boyfriend, Ray Nicolet, (Michael Keaton reprising his role from Jackie Brown) when he points to Ray’s conspicuous FBI T-shirt and asks, "Tell me, Ray, you ever wear one that says UNDERCOVER?"

This peculiar mélange of cops and criminals supplies the backdrop for the film’s narrative focus, the unlikely romance between Jack Foley (prolific bank robber) and Karen Sisco (deputy federal marshal). Lopez, playing Karen as an intricate blend of femme fatale allure and icy resolve, has never performed better onscreen. In a demonstration of her character’s ability to handle herself physically, she fends off Kenneth, who’s about to force himself on her, with one swat of a steel baton, calmly explaining as she leaves him cringing in pain, "You wanted to tussle. We tussled." And she ultimately carries out the difficult task of convincing the viewer that even though she feels affection for Jack and wants to be with him in the long-term, she is willing to shoot him in the leg and send him back to prison where an extended sentence awaits him.

For Clooney’s part, he charms and convinces from the movie’s opening scene— he rips off his tie, smooths his hair, then strolls into a bank unarmed and holds up the jittery cashier, speaking to her casually, "First time being robbed? You’re doing great." He seems utterly relaxed in front of the camera, portraying Jack with considerable restraint and world-weariness, as befits a character who’s been in prison most of his life and now realizes that his future looks more and more dim. At various points, Soderbergh emphasizes Jack’s sense of severed possibility by placing him in claustrophobic surroundings—cramped hotel rooms, car trunks, elevators—which, through metaphor, perpetuate his psychological confinement despite his physical freedom. Yet Clooney can immediately shift from this weary indifference to a don’t-screw-with-me kind of aloofness, somewhat reminiscent of Steve McQueen, showing only a trace of vulnerability. Perhaps his greatest accomplishment in this film is his ability to convey Jack’s fatalistic tendencies: Jack fully understands the ridiculousness of pursuing one last score. The guns-and-ski masks operation departs severely from Jack’s previous exploits as a smooth-talking unarmed bank robber, but he goes along with it anyway, risking death at the hands of Snoopy and his cronies as well as potential arrest. Jack’s combination of self-destructiveness and self-delusion ("I wonder," he tells Karen shortly after abducting her, "say we met under different circumstances and got to talking, say you were in a bar and I came up to you—I wonder what would happen then") incites laughter and heartbreak and qualifies him as an exemplary tragicomic protagonist.

Irish DJ/producer David Holmes provides Out of Sight’s musical score—a marriage of brooding electronica and funk-laden soul that enhances the movie’s look and feel. Soderbergh, who would call on Holmes again for Ocean’s Eleven, told The Village Voice, "I wanted a combination of Lalo Schifrin’s Dirty Harry and the first year of The Rockford Files, and David just totally got it." But Holmes’ score does more than just complement the action onscreen; at certain points it’s completely essential to the viewer’s interpretation. During the bathtub sequence, for instance, Holmes’s rhythmic, eroticized accompaniment reinforces the idea that what we’re seeing is Karen’s sexual fantasy. And toward the movie’s end, when Karen shoots and apprehends Jack, we hear the same somber music that played during their love scene. Hardly a coincidence, this aurally underpins the consequences of their doomed-from-the-start liaison. Such narrative intelligence sets Holmes in sharp relief from the Moby-esque soundtrack producers who simply create mood music.

Given the overwhelming number of creative influences at work here, we might be inclined to think that Soderbergh just relaxed and let things fall into place, but on the contrary, he managed to put his own auteuristic stamp on the film. Soderbergh’s films have always been known for their distinct style, and Out of Sight, his seventh effort as director, is not an exception. The film brings together an assortment of visual and narrative techniques rarely seen in contemporary popular cinema, and lays the groundwork for their use in his later, more commercially successful endeavors, particularly Traffic and Ocean’s Eleven (incidentally, another heist film).

From Out of Sight’s earliest stages, Soderbergh had in mind an aesthetic agenda that borrowed from his influences. "When I went in to meet with Jersey [Films] and Clooney," Soderbergh explained to Film Journal International, "I said that I saw it as a combination of an early William Friedkin movie and a Hal Ashby movie. It should have the energy of a Friedkin movie from the early ‘70s, but its approach to character and its balance to drama and humor should be like Ashby." And with the help of Scott Frank, Soderbergh quickly took measures to reshuffle the film’s story, which prior to his involvement was set to be told chronologically. Soderbergh later supplemented these preliminary adjustments with freeze-frames, jump-cuts, flashbacks, color shifts, and handheld camerawork, with each device fulfilling a relevant narrative function.

The freeze-frame first appears in the opening sequence, capturing Jack in mid-motion slinging his tie to the sidewalk, just as the OUT OF SIGHT title card flashes onto the screen. Here the freeze-frame works partly as a stylistic device, calling attention to itself in accordance with feel of the "It’s Your Thing"-accompanied opening credits. But it also calls attention to Jack’s angst and desperation, and it prepares us for the time loop that later takes place; when we find ourselves seeing Jack sling his tie a second time, we know we’re back at square one sequentially. Soderbergh employs the freeze-frame throughout the movie either for emphasis or to signal a time-shift, but the final and best example of its use occurs during Jack and Karen’s romantic interlude.

The scene begins in a trendy cocktail lounge atop Karen’s hotel. Through a wall-length window we see a nighttime view of the Detroit skyline, accented by snowfall. Looking sullen, Karen drinks her bourbon alone and wards off a duo of obnoxious advertising executives, until Jack shows up unexpectedly, sporting a navy blue suit and flicking his trademark Zippo. In rigid contrast to her treatment of the "ad guys," as they call themselves, Karen immediately becomes transfixed and gracious. After Jack sits down, he and Karen, silhouetted in the lamplight, begin a half-playful, half-serious conversation that escalates into Karen inviting Jack to her hotel room. But Soderbergh chooses to intersperse footage and dialogue of the cocktail lounge scene with footage of their actual love scene. Explaining this unusual juxtaposition, Soderbergh remarked to Michael Sragow of, "I thought back to that sequence in Don’t Look Now, and how those two scenes of Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie making love and getting dressed suggested an intimacy that was stronger than either of those scenes alone." His instincts were on target. By contemporary standards the scene is exceedingly tame, exposing minimal skin, certainly not enough to constitute nudity, yet the scene remains intensely erotic—because of that peculiar juxtaposition, because of David Holmes’ narrative-appropriate score, because of what it chooses not to reveal, and because of the freeze-framing, the unsteady camerawork, and the overlapping dissolves that intensify the action onscreen. Jack and Karen’s frozen embrace marks the film’s last application of the freeze-frame, ushering in the plot’s return to the here and now, to the present in the absence of flashbacks.

Soderbergh’s use of color in Out of Sight is of equal significance. To further underscore the film’s tone and to help the audience keep track of the time-shifts, Soderbergh identifies each major location with separate color palettes—vibrant oranges and turquoises for Miami, a monochromatic scheme of blues and grays for Detroit. As a comment on Jack and Karen’s ill-fated relationship, once the film shifts to wintry Detroit the warmth and sense of possibility in Miami are left behind. Similarly, each prison can be identified by a difference in the prisoner’s uniforms—steel blue for Glades Correctional, canary yellow for Lompoc, and finally, denim and orange for Detroit. From this visual pattern alone we can loosely construct a narrative timeline.

Soderbergh often reconciles his style and technical expertise to whatever genre (if any) he brings into play. His track record shows a proclivity for film noir—it surfaces in his earlier films like Kafka (1991) and The Underneath (1995), the latter a conceptualized remake of Robert Siodmak’s 1948 classic, Criss Cross. Soderbergh has discussed at length his attraction to film noir and his desire to expand on it rather than duplicate it:

      There is a central idea in this genre that I like a lot: a character lives as a function of values in which he/she believes, and in relation to a moral code. When they start to want something very strongly, just for a moment they think they can cross that line that they themselves established…then go back to the way things were. Naturally, they find out that’s not possible… On the other hand, the exterior aspects of the genre don’t really interest me. From the beginning I told my collaborators [on The Underneath]: no wet pavement, no huge shadows, no hats, no smoke…that seems pointless to me… You have to acknowledge the conventions associated with this kind of film if you decide to make one, but most importantly, you have to bring your own point of view (Postif, April 1996).

Out of Sight, of course, owes less to film noir than some of Soderbergh’s other films, but the noirish elements that do materialize, such as the wisecracking banter between Jack and Karen, come off as fresh. Likewise, Jack’s fatalism and skewed sense of ethics are in keeping with the noir hero’s tendency that Soderbergh mentioned: it’s the same rationale which allows Jack to delude himself into thinking that he and Karen can iron things out, that after one last score the two of them can "make it an island."

This final score, or at least the attempt at the score, transpires at Richard Ripley’s exquisitely lit Detroit mansion—compared to the frigid conditions outside its walls, the house seems like an oasis of warmth and opportunity. In another display of his ability to mix and match tones, Soderbergh offsets the film’s mounting sense of dread with ironic comedy. Snoopy and his gang of thugs, though they consider themselves professionals, quickly fold when the diamonds fail to turn up in the first places they look. White Boy Bob amuses himself by discovering multicolored condoms underneath Ripley’s mattress, then sneaks off to raid the freezer; taking a break from trying to rape Ripley’s maid, Kenneth rummages through Ripley’s CD collection for theme music; Snoopy, supposedly the brains behind the operation, concerns himself with putting together an ensemble from Ripley’s wardrobe.

Meanwhile Jack and Buddy locate the uncut diamonds, but Jack sends Buddy away with them alone, remaining behind to protect the maid. He does manage to save her, killing Kenneth in the process (which appears to be the first time he has fired a gun, vis-à-vis Butch Cassidy) but before he can escape, Karen appears and holds him at gunpoint. Jack, clenching an empty pistol, threatens to commit suicide-by-cop (Karen had requested backup and at this point we hear the approaching sirens), but Karen denies him that option by shooting him in the leg with the same gun that Jack returned to her the morning after their interlude. Handcuffing him to the balustrade, she tells him, "I’m sorry. I wish things were different." David Holmes’ score—again, the identical score played during the love scene—drowns out all other sound while Jack grimaces in pain and comes to terms with the way things shook out (a mental process amplified by a series of jump-cuts). Though he doesn’t respond to Karen’s numb apology, we can see that Jack wishes things were different too.

The film’s mildly ambiguous conclusion, absent from Leonard’s novel, comes entirely from the imagination of Scott Frank. While being transported from Detroit back to Glades Correctional, Jack finds himself paired with fellow prisoner Hejira Henry (Samuel L. Jackson). In the course of their conversation, Jack learns that Hejira has escaped from prison on ten previous occasions. Putting two and two together, Jack begins to understand why Karen made arrangements for the two of them to meet:

And now we’re off to Glades.

Yeah, looks that way. I was supposed to leave last night with the lady marshal,
but for some reason she wanted to wait.

She did, huh?

Guess it’s cheaper taking two of us down in one van.

Could be. Could be maybe she thought we’d have a lot to talk about.

Really. Like what?

I don’t know… Long ride to Florida.

This scene stands out for several reasons. For one, it embodies a flawless use of the cameo—Jackson’s presence ensures that the scene will resonate in the minds of the audience. Secondly, it veers drastically from mainstream cinema’s tendency to unite its lovers at all cost. In the hands of less adept storytellers, Jack might have reached a sudden epiphany and changed his bank-robbing ways. But Soderbergh, Frank, and Leonard all three demonstrate that Jack lacks the capacity to reform himself; look no further than his eruption inside Ripley’s office building. Thus, given the plot’s circumstances, Out of Sight reaches an entirely logical—albeit depressing—conclusion. Lastly, by intentionally leaving the film open-ended, Soderbergh sustains its mystery and encourages the viewer to actively fill in the gaps. Like his contemporaries Christopher Nolan and David Lynch, Soderbergh in this manner plays with the audience’s compulsion to know every last detail. And if Traffic and Ocean’s Eleven are any indication, Soderbergh clearly thinks that endings are often about new beginnings—instead of being constricted by a contrived stab at closure, the movie seems to continue beyond the strips of celluloid.

Steven Soderbergh has emerged from the avant-garde to chip away at the barrier between popular cinema and art cinema, and Out of Sight confirms this beautifully. Though his films are seldom "original" in the traditional sense—he routinely derives material from the films he admires, and Solaris will mark his third remake to date—his talent lies in his execution and his eagerness to take risks. Most recently, Full Frontal has been unanimously panned by the critics, dismissed as a pretentious and self-referential experiment, a miserable follow-up to Ocean’s Eleven. Audiences have apparently taken the film too seriously and overlooked the satire that oscillates under the film’s surface, but the point is that Full Frontal clearly speaks to Soderbergh’s ability to regroup and keep himself fresh—a trait that sets him apart from other supposed film artists who merely find a formula that works and set up shop. Expressing his approach to mainstream filmmaking, Soderbergh stated:

      As somebody once put it to me, bluntly, "If you think Hollywood movies are so fucking terrible, why don’t you try to make a good one instead of bitching about it." So I’ve been trying to carve out half-in, half-out of the mainstream ideas for genre films made with some amount of care and intelligence and humor—to see if we can get back to that period we all liked in American cinema 25 years ago (, January 2000, archived).

Rick Warner is currently working toward a M.A. in Film Studies at Emory University

Maintained by Blip Magazine Archive at

Copyright © 1995-2011
Opinions are those of the authors.