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Steven Soderbergh is known as much for his Oscar winning tense dramas as he is retiring... then not retiring. He was a part of the indy revolution in the 1980s and 90s that helped usher in a new case of writers and directors who didn't play by the rules of the Hollywood system. He's also known for making quirky and emotionally potent small films. In this episode of Crash Course Film Criticism, we'll look at one of his smaller films. It's called The Limey and it's about a British lifetime criminal seeking revenge for the death of his daughter.


Check out all 15 films we'll be talking about below!!!

Citizen Kane
Where Are My Children?
In the Mood For Love
Do the Right Thing
Lost In Translation
Apocalypse Now
Pan's Labyrinth
The Limey
Three Colors: Blue
The Eagle Huntress
Beasts of No Nation
2001: A Space Odyssey


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[PBS Digital Studios Theme]

Some stories tell intricate stories filled with twists–like the search for truth in All the President's Men, the dark tangents of Mulholland Drive, or the trippy lunacy of Being John Malkovich.

Other times, the story is very simple, while the telling is remarkably complex. Steven Soderbergh's 1999 film The Limey is one of those movies. By using unusual or even experimental techniques, filmmakers can draw out of the themes of a film and challenge viewers to look at cinema in a whole new way. From its scrambled timeline to its occasionally avant-garde editing style, The Limey takes a familiar plot, and layers it with deeper meaning.

This film shows how movies, more than any other medium, can mirror the ways minds work, and ow memories unfold.

I'm Michael Aranda, this is Crash Course Film Criticism, and I have a cold.

[Crash Course Film Criticism Intro music]

In 1998, Steven Soderberg had just finished directing Out of Sight, the sexy crime thriller starring George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez. And he was gearing up to make Erin Brockivich and win a Best Director Oscar for Traffic. But before scaling the heights of mainstream Hollywood, he turned his attention to a little revenge thriller written by Lem Dobbs, best known for writing the sci-fi noir cult hit Dark City.

The Limey follows a British thief neamed Wilson, played with steely conviction by Terence Stamp. He travels to Los Angeles fresh from prison to investigate the death of his daughter Jenny. The thing is, Wilson's been incarcerated for most of Jenny's life. He barely knows her. So he starts filling in the gaps.

He gets help from Eduardo, a fellow ex-con played by Luis Guzman. Eduardo knew Jenny and becomes Wilson's reluctant sidekick. Wilson also connects with Elaine, a former actress and mentor of Jenny's, played with tragic grace by Leskie Ann Warren.

The trail ultimately points to Terry Valentine, a former music producer who was dating Jenny at the time of her death. Played by Peter Fonda, Valentine is a vapid, charming sleaze-ball. He has recently started laundering money for a drug cartel to make ends meet.

Wilson spends the movie circling his target, investigating Jenny's death, and avoiding a pair of hitmen hired to take him out. There are flashes of violence, moments of deadpan humor, and a galvanizing 1960's soundtrack.

The final gun battle at Valentine's beach house in Big Sur, California leaves most of Valentine's crew dead or dying. Eventually, Wilson chases a wounded Valentine to a rocky beach, and he gets the whole story. Jenny had discovered Valentine's illegal activities and threatened to turn him in. Valentine panicked and tried to stop her, and in their struggle, she struck her head and died.

Wilson remembers Jenny threatening to call the cops on him when she was a young girl, without ever following through on her threats. And, in that moment, he recognizes that he played a part in her death. He leaves Valentine bleeding on the beach as the tide comes rolling in.

And that's it. It's a pretty familiar plot, but Soderbergh saw something else buried inside the tropes. For him, The Limey was a deep introspective story about memory, regret, and forgiveness. And Soderbergh thought that he knew how to shoot and edit the film in ways that would make these themes central to the experience of watching it.

Basically, he thought he could cut the movie so that it felt like a memory. And when you're critiquing a film, it can be heloful to take a magnifying glass to the filmmakers' choices and techniques. By doing that with The Limey, we can figure out how Soderbergh adds layers of complexity to the characters and plot of a classic revenge story, and the ways he carefully controls how the audience experiences it all.

Now, as we talked about in Crash Course Film History, most films are edited using a strategy called continuity editing. This means that most cuts are seamless, or even invisible. The edits are designed to make the film's time and space clear. They don't interrupt the action, and time generally moves forward.

The Limey takes another approach. From the first few shots, Soderbergh and editor Sarah Flack opt for a strategy called discontinuity editing. Here the edits diliberately draw attention. The filmmakers cut back and forth within or between scenes, without actually telling us how they fit into the film's timeline or geography. This fragments the narrative and forces the audience into a more active role–we have to really watch the movie and piece it together. It's like solving a puzzle, which is exactly what Wilson's up to.

As the film progresses, we get shots of Wilson sitting and thinking–in an airplane, unpacking in his hotel room, turning on the shower, then back to him in the plane, staring out the window. Did he ever get back on the plane? Did he leave? Is this a memory? A fantasy? A flash forward?

The movie sets up a kind of dissonance between sound, image, and time. The filmmakers scramble these elements to get at something deeper in their story. All these cross-cut shots of Wilson give the film a much more contemplative tone than your average revenge thriller. And as soon as we're used to those, the film deploys even more sophisticated discontinuity editing techniques.

Soderbergh and Flack start cutting to heavily stylized shots of a young girl on a beach. She looks right at the camera, a circle of reflected light flashing over her face. This is Jenny, refracted through Wilson's memory. It's an almost ghostly image–imperfect, sad, yet beautiful.

And these memory shots lead to other flashbacks, often without dialogue. They're of a convict that looks remrkably like a young Terence Stamps trying to maintain a relationship with a woman and their daughter. Turn's out, it is a much younger Terence Stamp! Soderbergh had the idea to use a 1967 film by Ken Loach called Poor Cow to show Wilson's backstory.