Keith: Too often, movie reviews throw the word “stylish” around as if that word means anything by itself. I’m sure I’m guilty of the offense multiple times over, but some films just inspire it, Steven Soderbergh’s 1998 Elmore Leonard adaptation Out Of Sight among them. What do we talk about when we talk about “stylish”? We usually don’t mean films that call attention to their technique. Those usually earn the less positive adjective “flashy.” Sometimes “stylish” is code for “looks and moves a lot better than most films of its type.” Out Of Sight is stylistically several cuts above most crime thrillers of its era (or any era), but it isn’t like it tries to hide its inventiveness. The color scheme shifts by location, the film jumps around in time, and the editing has a cool precision. Soderbergh seems to be in command of every effect, and have considered every inch of each frame. Yet the film itself never feels rigid or mechanical. It’s a near-perfect marriage of a director interested in pushing against the boundaries of conventional storytelling, and a story that takes to the inventiveness. It’s stylish in the best possible sense.
Scott: The “Gary and Celeste” sequence is as good as any in Soderbergh’s career, and it encapsulates so much of what Out Of Sight does well stylistically. Soderbergh and cinematographer Elliot Davis carry over the color toning of The Underneath here, but the cold blues we associate with Detroit are transformed into a snow-globe backdrop, and inside, we get the warm browns of Karen Sisco’s dress (and undergarments), eyes, and liquor of choice. Removed from the harshness outside, Karen (Jennifer Lopez) and Jack (George Clooney) can carve out a new world to go along with their new identities, and along with the sexiness of these actors and this dialogue, Soderbergh and Davis create a mood that’s intimate and insular—a moment out of time. The freeze-frame technique used throughout the film increases, David Holmes’ music takes over from the playful banter of “Gary And Celeste” meeting, and Soderbergh frees himself to play around with structure in a fashion he attempted more aggressively a year later with The Limey. The point of comparison for the love scene is Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, which mashes up the sex and the partners getting dressed afterward, but Out Of Sight has a softness of tone that’s unique, beyond the white-hot chemistry between the two leads. Keep in mind, too, that the stakes are incredibly high for that one sequence: Just as the earlier scene in the trunk has to make us believe that Karen is willing to set aside her duties as a federal marshal to break away with Jack, we also have to believe it was worth it.
But that’s just the style. Anyone have words on the structure? Soderbergh’s use of achronology is bold, especially for a Hollywood thriller, and it starts with the fulcrum point of Jack throwing off his tie after the interview with Ripley (Albert Brooks) and immediately heading across the street. That emphasizes something fundamental about his character, who isn’t fit for any day job, let alone one as a low-wage hump at a security sign-in desk. But how else does the structure pay off for you?
Tasha: First, a thought on “stylish”: I think people who call a film stylish are saying the technique calls attention to itself—it’s just that they’re also indicating approval. (“Flashy” is reserved for more ambivalent reactions, and a negative reaction to aggressive style calls for words like “overbearing” or “intrusive” or “show-offy.”) In this case, there are the chronological breaks and the freeze-frames, but also the red-saturated fantasy sequence of Karen joining Jack in the bath, and the oh-so-effective chronological mismatch of the sex scene, where Soderbergh lets the audience hear Karen and Jack socially navigating in public, but simultaneously shows the results of the conversation: the two of them luring each other into bed later, in private. And there’s the insinuating, lazy jazz/funk score, and the bedroom lighting of the car-trunk scene, and the chopped-up, dizzying scene where poor Glenn (Steve Zahn) is forced to murder a victim whom the camera manages to catch for a few frames at most. Filmmaking is sometimes invisible, but in this case the craft is unmissable, because so many of the decisions are aggressive and evident. But for this story, it works well—hence the thumbs-up of “stylish.”
How does the achronology pay off for me? Apart from individual scenes (like that sex scene, which manages to linger over the flirting and cut to the chase at the same time), I’m not sure it does. The shot of Jack furiously spiking his tie is a character-making moment, but given that he’s been in and out of jail for hundreds of bank robberies over the years, I’ve never felt it added much to have him commit a crime and then go to jail two years in the past for an identical crime. I suppose it’s necessary to explain why Snoopy (Don Cheadle), Glenn, and Ripley are all out of jail in the Detroit sequence, even though they weren’t in on the Florida break, but that could have been explained just as well with a jump forward. Then again, it’s easy enough to not worry much about the chronology, and to just follow the characters’ charm and the excitement of a jailbreak and a heist through whatever loops are necessary.
Noel: We’ll talk more about Elmore Leonard later, but Quentin Tarantino once said that the way he structures his movies—jumping around in time without making a big deal about it—was influenced by reading novels by Leonard and other genre-fiction writers, who will start out telling an exciting story and then suddenly begin a new chapter with words like, “Three years earlier, Jack Foley was…” To me, the jumbled chronology in Out Of Sight comes from that same impulse to replicate what it’s like to read a good book. But it’s also smart filmmaking, because it follows the principle of “show, don’t tell.” I’ve spent a lot of time over the past couple of years grumbling about movies where a bunch of related people gather and talk, very awkwardly, about what brought them to this point, giving the impression that everything interesting that’s ever going to happen to these folks already occurred, and now we’re stuck with the boring aftermath. Well, rather than having Jack tell Buddy (Ving Rhames), “Remember back in LOMPOC when…?” Soderbergh and writer Scott Frank go back to the prison so we can see it for ourselves. So much more satisfying.
Nathan: I suffered through a plague of Quentin Tarantino knockoffs when I first started writing about motion pictures in the late 1990s, and the experience left me with a distinct suspicion of style, especially when applied to films rooted in the Leonard/Tarantino tradition. Re-watching Out Of Sight, I was struck by how understated the film’s style is. It’s always there. Every shot, every sequence is obviously the result of deep thought, but the style seldom calls attention to itself. It’s not invisible by any stretch of the imagination, but like its protagonist, it’s enormously seductive. I can see what it’s doing every step of the way, but I fall for it all the same, and a lot of it is attributable to David Holmes’ sexy, soulful, wonderfully organic score, which I feel like I have been hearing snatches of as bumper music on NPR for years. It goes a long way toward establishing the tone and texture of individual scenes.
Scott: Keith’s Keynote from yesterday gets into how Out Of Sight, along with Get Shorty and Jackie Brown, cracked the Elmore Leonard code after decades of mostly undistinguished adaptations. But the odd thing about Leonard is that his books lend themselves beautifully to movies, with their twisty plots, colorful characters, and snappy dialogue, and with their absence of internal monologue or other impossible-to-translate literary conceits. That said, great adaptations have to reconcile a book with a filmmaker’s point of view, and Out Of Sight is an exquisite fusion of Leonard and Soderbergh’s sensibilities. Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Frank have arranged Leonard’s story to give out different pieces of information at different times, but otherwise, this plot and this assembly of small-time crooks (and great talkers) is recognizably Elmore Leonard, as is much of the language. And the cool, glancing deftness of the style and rhythm of the film is recognizably Soderbergh. How do you all feel about Out Of Sight as an adaptation? What does it get right about Leonard?
Noel: Tone and characterization, first and foremost. There’s a refreshing matter-of-factness to the way Leonard writes criminals. They’re funny, and even charming sometimes, but not cool, per se. They make stupid decisions and do terrible things. I think again of Glenn, showing up for his part of Jack and Buddy’s escape and asking, “So what’s goin’ on?” (To which Jack stares at him for a beat, amazed, and then answers, “Aw, nothin’.”) I hate to keep bringing up Tarantino, but part of what made Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction so refreshing was that they both make familiar B-movie types feel more real by having them talk about pop music and TV, just like regular people. Out Of Sight does something similar, though not with movie references (or I should say not only with movie references), but rather with the way they casually converse even during prison escapes and home invasions. Leonard’s characters are good company.
Nathan: I think it’s worth mentioning that Pulp Fiction, Get Shorty, and Out Of Sight were all produced by Danny DeVito for his Jersey Films production company. I don’t know how hands-on he is as a producer, but he clearly has a really nice eye for this material. Part of what makes Out Of Sight work is how relatively understated (and as Noel said, matter-of-fact) it is. Lesser Leonard adaptations like Be Cool and Freaky Deaky too often come down to, “Get a load of these colorful freaks! What is the deal with them?” Out Of Sight lets us see them as human beings, not just broad caricatures. The craziness is already there with Leonard; you don’t need to play it up visually, or you risk ruining the alchemy that made him great.
Keith: There’s also this: A good Elmore Leonard adaptation needs to fill in a lot of blanks. Leonard published a list of 10 rules for writing that provides a lot of insight into his method, ending with these three: “Avoid detailed description of characters,” “Don’t go into great detail describing places and things,” and “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” That resulted in spare, propulsive novels that leave filmmakers a lot of choices when it comes to casting, set design, costuming, and so on. The best, like Out Of Sight, make smart choices that don’t conflict with what Leonard put on the page. (Or conflict smartly: Karen is a blonde in Out Of Sight and Jackie Burke changed from white to black to become Jackie Brown, but who would want anyone but Lopez or Pam Grier in those roles?)
Sex And Romance
Tasha: These days, the watchwords in sex-positive circles are “enthusiastic consent”—the idea that partners shouldn’t assume they know what’s going on in each other’s heads, they should communicate during sex, and look for positive, clearly communicated approval, not just lack of disapproval. Out Of Sight could be a classroom presentation on enthusiastic consent: If anything, it goes overboard in its black-and-white, binary approach to sex, where anything led by the woman in a heterosexual pas de deux is sweet, sexy, and erotic, and anything led by the man is rape. Contrast Jack and Karen’s sex scene with everything else in the film: Karen’s the one who starts the kissing, moves the scene to her hotel room, leads the transition to the bedroom, starts the stripping, and first climbs into bed. Throughout all this, Jack follows along, smiling. Meanwhile, Snoopy’s buddy Kenneth (Isaiah Washington) apparently attempts to rape every woman he sees, including Karen, and later, Ripley’s housekeeper Midge. No one in the robbery crew even seems surprised by Kenneth’s assault on Midge, which is treated as casual side business. Rape hangs heavily over the whole film, starting when Jack bundles Karen into her own car trunk, climbs in next to her, and starts stroking her, while simultaneously promising he won’t rape her. It’s possible that the way he later stands back so she can lead is less about Soderbergh or Leonard believing a woman should be in the driver’s seat for any sensual encounter, and more that Jack needs to make up for the way they met.
But while rape hangs over the whole film, sex—and probably more significantly, the steamy anticipation of sex—hangs over it, too. The whole film is a will-they-or-won’t-they between cop and criminal, with a sense of presiding inevitability. And even with the first time handled, the sexual tension only abates slightly, because there’s the bigger question of whether these two have a romantic future. One of the more interesting things about Out Of Sight is that unlike most American films, it doesn’t take for granted either that Karen and Jack’s tumble in the hay was a one-off, or that it was sealing the deal on an automatic happily-ever-after relationship. Am I right in thinking that in this film, sex and romance both complicate much more than they resolve, at any point in the story?
Noel: I’d throw the word “desire” right smack in the middle of “sex” and “romance,” Tasha. And you’re right, it’s not the kind of desire that can be satisfied by a one-night fling, during some playful time-out. Almost as soon as Jack separates from Karen after the jailbreak, he starts talking to Buddy about how he wishes the two of them could’ve met and gotten to know each other “under normal circumstances.” Throughout the film, it’s like he has something to prove to her: that he’s not like the other dumb crooks, and that she shouldn’t feel bad for being attracted to him. For her part, Karen keeps putting herself in situations where she can see Jack again, if only for a moment. Ever had the experience of going about your ordinary business and then unexpectedly you run into your spouse/partner/boyfriend/girlfriend, and suddenly it brightens your entire day? That seems to be what it’s like for Jack and Karen when their paths intersect. It’s like they’ve found something reassuring amid the turbulent randomness of their daily existence. We see Karen give the brush-off to men not worthy of her time or affection, and we see her tease and confuse poor Glenn by saying she never forgets anybody she’s “cuffed and shackled.” But as soon as Jack appears reflected in the window of her hotel bar, looking like an apparition that’s just materialized over downtown Detroit, it’s clear that there’s only one person she fits with, and who can make her melt.
Scott: One of the strongest threads in Out Of Sight is how Karen navigates the world of men, who can be hostile and threatening (e.g. Snoopy and his crew), more benignly harassing (e.g. the businessmen who try to hit on her before “Gary” arrives), or, in Jack’s case, inviting in a complicated and compromising way. The film show her as confident and assured in sticky situations, like the jailhouse break-out (that dress and that shotgun is a story in itself), her “tussle” with Kenneth, and her no-nonsense way of managing the idiocy of her male superiors. As Noel says, Jack makes her melt, and it’s to the film’s credit that such a thing is made plausible without our losing respect in Karen as a professional. And the key, beyond the brilliant writing and direction of the trunk scene and the “Gary and Celeste” sequence, is putting Karen in a lot of different situations, with a lot of different types of men, and seeing how she plays them. She—and the movie—threads a very thin needle.
Nathan: Out Of Sight has a strong sense of morality. It isn’t just in the central romance where sex complicates more than it resolves. I’m thinking particularly of the moment where Buddy, who has seemingly spent his lifetime trying to reconcile his staunch Christian faith with his status as a career criminal, reveals that he has spent the last two hours confessing and apologizing over the phone for the 45 minutes he spent with a prostitute. Even a seemingly no-strings-attached situation like paid sex has serious consequences in Out Of Sight, where sex is never simple and easy. On that matter, am I the only one touched by Ripley’s late-film declaration of his love for Midge (Nancy Allen)? Sure, he’s a rich old criminal shtupping his housekeeper, but there’s something ingratiatingly old-fashioned about this man telling Jack how much he loves a woman in peril, making a fairly unlikable character seem unexpectedly human and relatable in a way he never did before. Sex and romance complicate things, but they can also redeem seemingly irredeemable people.
Keith: To loop back to your original question, Tasha, sex and romance complicate matters, but they’re also an extension of the way empathy complicates matters in the film. Karen comes to see Jack as more than just another perp to be busted, and though that ultimately doesn’t get in the way of her job, it doesn’t it make it any easier, either. It also might be the source of the fit of compassion that sends Jack back into the mansion to save Ripley and Midge. It’s not that Jack was a cruel man before, but the film establishes he values professionalism and clean getaways above all, which is why Glenn and Snoopy make him lose the cool he otherwise keeps. In the end, he sacrifices both for the sake of avoiding further bloodshed. Love makes you do crazy things, including wanting to be a better person.
Tasha: I’m not sure I buy that Jack’s softness over Karen is what sends him back into the house, and he doesn’t seem interested in Ripley at all. When he says he’s going back because he can’t stand by while Midge is raped, he’s acting entirely within his pre-Karen character as a gentleman thief, the kind of guy who gently reassures a bank teller, in the middle of a robbery, that she’s doing just fine and it’ll all be over soon. Even amid his selfishness and self-admiration, he’s a relatively kind and moral person—which is, I think, what attracts Karen to him in the first place. The charge between them at their first meeting is maybe a little because of their mutual danger, and because she’s a little drawn to his outlaw chic, and he’s a little drawn to her straight-and-narrow ways and her courage. But ultimately, I think Karen recognizes that Jack isn’t that bad at heart. It’d be a very different story if she fell for a man who could casually shrug off rape as just the price of working with thugs. There’s a long tradition of romantic cut-to-the-chase in films (and operas, and stage musicals, and Shakespeare), where two people take one look at each other and say, “We must be together, and I can’t think about anything else.” Often it’s just a physical response—I’ve always thought of Salma Hayek and Antonio Banderas’ meeting in Desperado as “Finally, someone as attractive as me!”—but here, it seems to be half that, and half a recognition of something deeper, something a little more like ye olde fabled love at first sight.
Elmore Leonard country: Florida and Detroit
Noel: Many of Elmore Leonard’s crime novels share characters and locations, with a lot of them set in either Florida or Detroit. Out Of Sight takes place in both, and Soderbergh and cinematographer Elliot Davis distinguish between the two through color and visual tone: Florida is bright and hot, Detroit is chilly and brittle. But it’s not just the look of the two locations that sets them apart. Glenn’s journey from one place to another is sort of the movie in miniature. He jumps from Jack and Buddy to Snoopy’s crew, and he quickly realizes he’s made a terrible mistake. Detroit is harder, more violent. Florida is the fun game Jack thinks he’s playing with Karen. Detroit is the danger that Karen knows is lurking.
Nathan: Leonard loves writing about desperate people, and there are few places in our nation that radiate more colorful desperation than Florida and Detroit. The scenes in Detroit have a hypnotic power, as these disparate players move toward an end game, but the Florida scenes have a lively good humor I enjoyed as well. This might be a good time to single out a character and performance I had forgotten about completely, and is seldom mentioned in discussions of Out Of Sight: Catherine Keener’s Adele. Keener specializes in playing cerebral, neurotic professional women, so it’s a wonderful change of pace to see her play one of Jack’s many exes, a ditzy magician’s assistant who obviously still has a lot of affection for the old lug. She’s a quintessentially Florida figure, squeezed into too-tight pants and a midriff-baring shirt; the Detroits of the world are simply too cold for pants that skimpy or people without more formidable defenses. And on the Detroit front, I found myself thinking White Boy Bob (Keith Loneker) was similarly overlooked and underrated; for a guy who says almost nothing, he makes a hell of an impression, particularly his undignified death.
Tasha: It’s pretty telling that when Chino (the ever-enjoyable Luis Guzmán) comes around to smash his way into Adele’s apartment and beat information about Jack out of her, the whole scene is played for laughs—laughs at his outright transparent lies as he tries to get in, laughs at Adele’s loopy cluelessness, laughs at how easily Karen takes him down, laughs at his ineffectual grousing as she restrains him. Every woman in Out Of Sight who rates an actual character name is menaced and threatened with violence at some point, but when it happens in Florida, it’s in a well-lit, sunny apartment during the day, and it’s a hapless joke. When it happens in Detroit, it’s in dark, close, oppressive spaces, and it’s always frightening, and meant seriously. Detroit’s thugs aren’t playing around; they’re serious and scary.
Keith: One of my favorite moments in the film is when it shifts to Detroit, which it presents as essentially another world from Florida. The sort of scene-setting-through-montage-set-to-music Soderbergh does here can sometimes come off as to easy, but as “Fight The Power” plays, it feels like we’re getting Detroit in miniature: cold, towering, energetic, and more than a little dangerous.
Tasha: I don’t want to just gloss over the use of color and space to distinguish the two locales: One of the most striking things about this film is the vivid use of color, but it’s primarily limited to the Florida scenes, where Jack wears a cherry-red Hawaiian shirt and the characters bounce between those airy, spacious, pastel-walled apartments. Or there are the scenes at the Florida prison, where inmates wear canary yellow, and mostly move around bright, sunny outdoor areas, or a well-lit library. When the action moves to Detroit and the story enters an apartment there, it’s cluttered, dark, and close, with the residents, Moselle (Viola Davis!) and Kenneth, dressed in dark, earthy colors. The boxing gym, the boxing match, Karen’s confrontation with Glenn in the car, even the hotel bar where Jack and Karen reunite—they’re all dark and keyed to subdued grays, blues, and browns. It’s impossible to miss the transition between the bright, playful past in Florida, and the grim present in Detroit, where actual lives are on the line.
Nathan: Favorite moments and scenes? I’ll start off with the wonderful sequence where Snoopy is shaking down Ripley for basic necessities and perks like pet goldfish, when Jack interrupts the shakedown and calls Snoopy on his bullshit. Ripley reluctantly acquiesces to Snoopy’s extortion because he thinks he has no choice; he’s a soft man in a brutal environment, and he thinks he needs Snoopy’s protection, whatever the cost. But Jack’s impish smile suggests that he always has a choice, and that any alternative would be preferable to being Snoopy’s stooge. There’s a wonderful tension to the moment, but what makes it stand out is the way Brooks plays the scene, the way his character tries to bring the principles he learned in business school to gritty jailhouse maneuvering. He’s a criminal, in jail where he belongs, but he’s also an old businessman trying not to get screwed in this charged exchange, in any sense of the word. The scene has a perfect capper in Snoopy belligerently killing the goldfish Ripley was willing to pay thousands for. The quietly terrifying Snoopy crushing a goldfish just to make a point is potent and memorable in its own right, but it also foreshadows the hiding place for Ripley’s $5.2 million in uncut diamonds. If Snoopy were smarter and paid closer attention, he would be a lot better off—but then he wouldn’t be Snoopy, now would he?
Tasha: Nathan, you found my favorite scene, but zipped right past my favorite moment: In the library sequence, Jack deliberately antagonizes and assaults Snoopy’s bodyguard in order to impress/befriend Ripley, and he’s just knocked him out and moved on to Snoopy when a guard steps in. Whereupon Snoopy and Jack both instantaneously pretend to be studying something fascinating in the book Jack just used to knock the bodyguard out. The comic timing of that moment is wonderful, but so is what it implies about how fast these men think, and how even in the midst of fighting, they still recognize that they’re allies on one side of the law, and the guard is an enemy on the other. It implies how quickly they’re likely to turn on each other later, during the heist, and how little their false friendship can be trusted, but it’s also just funny.
I also have a soft spot for Karen’s bathtub dream about Jack, which fools me every time—it’s such a steamy, exaggerated romance-novel moment, and it seems like such a narrative leap that it’s distancing. But it’s also seductive enough to override the objections—and then it becomes a rug-pull moment when Karen wakes up and learns that she’s said something just a little revealing in her sleep. I usually hate “It was just a dream” sequences, but here, it’s a little insight into Karen’s head, and again, it’s funny, which papers over a lot of resistance.
Noel: We should acknowledge how great George Clooney is in this movie. Jennifer Lopez is wonderful too—so much so that it’s a shame she didn’t stay the course as a movie star, rather than focusing so much of her energy on pop music—but Clooney has had such a strong post-Out Of Sight career that it’s easy to forget how this film righted his reputation. He’d made a ton of money with the first couple of films he starred in after leaving the TV series ER, but few critics took him seriously as an actor. Around the time Out Of Sight came out, I remember Clooney giving interviews in which he talked about how he was rich enough from Batman & Robin not to have to make any more movies he didn’t believe in. He also said that Soderbergh had cured him of some of his actorly tics, convincing him to stare straight ahead rather than always dipping his chin and bobbing his head. Nathan, you ask about memorable moments, and most of mine involve Clooney’s unexpected maturity and deadpan wit. My favorite example of the latter: When one of Ripley’s goons comes to escort Jack out of his office and says, “There are two ways we can do this,” to which Jack replies, “Yeah, what are they?” As for the former, I think again of that scene at the hotel bar with Karen, when Jack sighs that he’d rather they just be themselves, and bring everything they’ve lived and experienced into the bedroom. “Gary and Celeste, what do they know about anything?” he asks. What changed about Clooney as an actor is that he stopped being a Gary and started being a Jack Foley.
Scott: I’ll join Noel in praising Clooney’s star power here. That first scene post-credits, when he storms over to the Suntrust Bank and convinces the teller to give him all the cash in her drawer, is Clooney at his most charismatic. Jack really doesn’t pose a terribly credible threat: He doesn’t have a gun, and he’s concocted an improvised story about another bank customer who will get violent if she doesn’t comply. But Clooney projects such confidence and calm, and so swiftly de-escalates a scary situation for the teller, that it’s like he robs a bank through a Jedi mind-trick. We learn a lot about Jack Foley from that scene—his aversion to guns, his way with women, the plausibility of his long record of bank robberies—and I can think of few other Hollywood actors with the presence to pull that off.
As for favorite scenes, I really came to love everything Steve Zahn does after Glenn hooks up with Snoopy and the gang in Detroit. At the time, Zahn was such a go-to guy for lovable goofs and fuck-ups, and the film plays off that reputation beautifully when Glenn gets forced into a level of criminality that makes him uncomfortable. His thunderstruck expression after a violent rite of passage beautifully illustrates a favorite Leonard theme about the different places where outlaws draw the line.
Keith: I’m always reluctant to bring in details from Wikipedia that I can’t verify in other ways, but this one, from a not-online piece in the British magazine Empire, is just too perfect to pass up: Soderbergh was unsure whether the project was him when producer Casey Silver told him, “These things aren’t going to line up very often, you should pay attention.” And if it wasn’t clear then, it’s certainly clear now what a remarkable alignment had to take place to bring together this talent in front of and behind the camera for a project that allowed everyone to do some of the best work of their careers.
Our Movie Of The Week discussion of Out Of Sight kicked off yesterday with Keith Phipps’ Keynote on how the film cracked the Leonard adaptation code, and continues tomorrow with Jason Bailey’s survey of Steve Soderbergh’s wilderness years between Sex, Lies, And Videotape and Out Of Sight.