Out of Sight (1998)

Steven Soderbergh | 2hr 3min

The artistic reach of Pulp Fiction can be felt on an immense scale through the decades of cinema since its release in 1994, and yet it is just as fascinating to study its immediate cinematic offspring born of Quentin Tarantino’s hyper-stylised editing and non-linear structure. Out of Sight might feel familiar in this sense, and yet it is never derivative, demonstrating Steven Soderbergh’s mastery of an art form that is constantly reinventing itself under the steady hand of innovative creators. The similarities between these two leading directors of 90s independent cinema aren’t accidental either – just as Tarantino adapted an Elmore Leonard novel the year prior, so too does Out of Sight draw from one of Leonard’s most famous crime thrillers, and even tie in a cameo from Michael Keaton’s detective character in Jackie Brown, Ray Nicolette.

And yet despite all these parallels, it is still tough to imagine anyone other than Soderbergh directing something as uniquely composed and darkly comic as Out of Sight. Tarantino might have lightly experimented with freeze frames in Pulp Fiction, but Soderbergh takes them even further in this rollicking cat-and-mouse chase across several American cities, lifting characters out of time and lingering on the humour, pain, and longing of their expressions for just a few seconds longer.

A major achievement in editing with freeze frames in Out of Sight, lifting characters out of time and lingering on the humour, pain, and longing of their expressions for just a few seconds longer.

His finest use of this comes in early with the opening title, boldly announcing our leading man, bank robber Jack Foley, as he furiously tugs off his tie and throws it to the ground in a single blur of action. From this point on, it continues to land all through the film as a visual punctuation mark, frequently ending scenes before dissolving into the next. That Soderbergh was able to pull in veteran film editor Anne V. Coates, famous for her work on Lawrence of Arabia, is straight-out remarkable, and the collaboration pays off even further as we bounce between both sides of the conflict at the centre of the film.

Combining freeze frames with long dissolves as scene transitions, creating these powerful composite images.

All through Out of Sight, these parallel storylines wind each other like a dance, and leading both we find George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez towards the start of their acting careers, delivering a pair of enthralling performances loaded with romantic chemistry. Scott Frank’s smooth dialogue certainly makes up a large part of this too, as the interactions between Lopez’s U.S. Marshal, Karen Sisco, and her slippery target, Jack, hinge upon an effort to avoid their most natural instincts, as well as a universe that seems to be constantly running them into each other through chance encounters.

Jack and Karen brought together in this steamy dream sequence, leading to this dizzying overhead shot looking down on the bath.

The first time they are brought together is through a meeting of fates, where Jack’s prison break and Karen’s arrival at the gates collide. In a moment of panic, he pulls her into the trunk of his getaway car, trying to cover up any evidence of his escape. Forced into an awkwardly close position as the driver speeds away, she makes reluctant small talk with the man breathing down her neck, and Soderbergh spends the entire scene in tight close-up on their faces, squeezing us in with them. Physical intimacy and discomfort become one beneath the red light that he illuminates the scene with, as he generates a warmth that begins to wear away at their defences.

A bright, red light bathing the two adversaries and soon-to-be-lovers during their intimate first encounter.

By the time we reach hotel scene where both Karen and Jack fully give in to their mutual attraction, those inhibitions are well and truly gone. Even with some distance between the characters prior to this, Soderbergh still effectively builds a relationship based on tangential connections – a steamy dream sequence, an unexpected crossing of paths, and a brief flash of eye contact. All of this is to set up a truly artful sex scene that entirely earns its passion, delivered through a sensual intercutting of the lovers’ tantalising conversation at the bar, and the silent, physical consummation of their long-held desire that rolls beneath their lingering voiceover. Outside the large windows of both scenes, a stunning night sky of falling snow and city lights sheds an air of romance over them, and David Holmes’ bluesy score of electric guitar, keyboard, and drums settles into a slow, teasing beat.

A gorgeous city of lights and falling snow becoming a romantic backdrop to Karen and Jack’s sexual encounter in the hotel.

Of course, this is but a distillation of the non-linear structure Soderbergh employs all through Out of Sight, not quite shaking up the order of events to the point of becoming Pulp Fiction, but still frequently jumping between flashbacks and the present day enough to build out these characters’ backstories. This is not a convoluted story, but it is somewhat of a jigsaw puzzle in the way it sprawls out and pieces together into a gorgeously staged finale, sending each key player of this ensemble into a mansion where a cache of uncut diamonds is said to be hidden.

Nothing is by accident in Soderbergh’s framing, foreshadowing Jack’s prison break with the watch tower in the background of this shot.
Soderbergh maintains a strong sense of setting as we jump between American cities and suburbs, making the most of these gorgeous wide shots.

It is inside this magnificent set piece that Soderbergh is clearly most at home, as he sets his thriller caper against luxurious backdrops of olive-green walls, ornate wooden furniture, and gold-embellished ceilings. There is a through line of black comedy that runs through the scene too, most evident in the darkly ironic death of White Boy Bob tripping and shooting himself in the head. On a purely dramatic level though, Soderbergh is entirely committed to paying off on multiple character relationships through his action and suspense, spanning multiple betrayals, murders, and of course, one very complicated romance. In the end, it all comes back to that love forbidden by social convention yet spurred on by a fatalistic world driving the two ends of the law together. Only with as heightened a visual style as that which Soderbergh binds to his narrative in Out of Sight could this unlikely pairing make all the sense in the world.

A brilliantly staged finale in this manor of green walls, gold-patterned ceilings, and ornate wooden furniture, but he is also sure to emphasise these as part of the drama through both high and low angles.

Out of Sight is currently streaming on Binge, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.

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