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Steven Soderbergh Month: Time is a puzzle to solve in ‘The Limey’

Steven Soderbergh Month: Time is a puzzle to solve in ‘The Limey’

The Limey- Steven Soderbergh 1999

A haggard voice breaks the darkness of the screen.

“Tell me…

“Tell me…

“Tell me about Jenny.”

If possible, the voice is simultaneously threatening and pleading. It’s demanding and mourning. Terence Stamp’s Wilson in Steven Soderbergh’s The Limey is a man out of place, a British ex-con in sunny Los Angeles trying to learn about his daughter and her death. Pete Townsend’s loud, brash guitars and Roger Daltrey’s screaming “I’m a seeker/I’m a really desperate man” sets the tone for the movie. Unlike the slick films like Out of Sight or Ocean’s Eleven, which he was doing with George Clooney, Soderbergh isn’t out to make Stamp’s Wilson look like a shining knight. Maybe it’s just Clooney’s superpower of charisma, but his characters are classic leading men, with their Cary Grant smiles and ladykiller swagger. In comparison, Stamp is an old, tired man with the biggest possible chip on his shoulder. His daughter is dead and he’s going to find out why.

Soderbergh sculpts this movie like a memory. All of the pieces are there but not in the exact order that they happened. As Wilson tries to put together the pieces of his daughter’s death, Soderbergh is constructing this movie out of order and giving the audience snippets of information only here or there. Wilson’s Los Angeles journey is fragmented as he tries to reconnect with a dead woman he remembers as his little girl playfully threatening to call the cops on him. He’s spent the better part of his life in prison and has this image of Jenny that’s as fragmented as Soderbergh’s movie is. He remembers her from the times when he was out of the joint but that means that there are whole portions of her life that he has no idea about, particularly her life in L.A.

The Limey- picture of Jenny

Three people help him learn about his daughter; her friend Eduardo, her best friend Elaine (who’s a tad closer to Wilson’s age than Jenny’s) and her much older boyfriend, record producer Terry Valentine. Landing in L.A., all Wilson has is Eduardo’s address from a kind letter Eduardo wrote him about Jenny’s death. Knocking on Eduardo’s door, it’s unclear whether Wilson wants knowledge of or revenge for a daughter that he hasn’t seen in over 9 years. From Eduardo, Wilson learns about Terry Valentine and a shady trucking company, but he finds no answers about his daughter’s death. He assumes it wasn’t an accident because of this image he has of Jenny, frozen in time, threatening to call the cops on him. It was a child’s threat but it was enough that, even as a child, she understood right and wrong and knew her father’s life choices were wrong.

Moving through The Limey, Terence Stamp is in total control of everything except for the story. There’s not one wasted movement or word from his Wilson. A career criminal, Wilson has learned to plan out everything and that’s how he moves so effortlessly through strange environments like Los Angeles and Big Sur. Wilson isn’t a criminal mastermind. You get the idea from the story that he’s spent more time behind bars than out of them, but he’s been smart with what he’s done with his stolen loot (the last big score being the take from a big Pink Floyd show years ago.) Stamp knows when to slow down his dialogue to a crawl and when to talk a mile a minute. That’s how Wilson’s brain works; he accesses everything and acts in ways that will keep whoever he’s facing off guard. That’s how he deals with criminals and DEA agents.

Elaine accuses Valentine of packaging and selling the 1960s, and what better actor to epitomize the failures of the summer of love than Peter Fonda. In over his head, Valentine has a smile that could get him out of almost everything. Like with Wilson and The Who’s “The Seeker,” Valentine is introduced with another 1960’s song, The Hollies’ “King Midas In Reverse.” “I’ll break you and destroy you/Given time” sets up everything we need to know about Valentine. But it’s so easy to miss as the song is playing, because you concentrate on the idea of Valentine as a man whose touch turns anything gold into garbage. Accompanying the song, Soderbergh shows us a montage of Valentine’s life with the past and the future colliding with the now.

Terry Valentine from The LimeyThe structure of the film is perfectly encapsulated in the Valentine montage. While The Hollies play, we see all of these images of Valentine’s life. Some of those images we’ll see again in the film as the present point in The Limey will catch up with the future and everything comes together. Soderbergh builds whole sequences around this cut-up technique of editing. There are conversations that bounce back and forth in time from line to line of dialogue but as Soderbergh edits them together, it flows perfectly. Time in The Limey, and many Soderbergh films, isn’t an absolutely fixed structure. How time flows is just another storytelling tool, like the script or wardrobe, to envelop the audience and bring them into a world that’s just different enough from their own.

Ultimately, Wilson’s quest to find out about Jenny reveals that she grew up to be the same girl her knew as a child. The child who threatened to call the cops on her father would repeat that same scene with Valentine years later, only with crueler results. Trying to reconstruct an image of his daughter, Wilson realizes that he doesn’t need to because he already had that image. The girl he knew in England was the same woman that Eduardo, Elaine, and Valentine knew in California. But he is also forced to see himself as he really was towards her. As much as he was a father, he was a criminal and that would follow Jenny her whole life, no matter how far she ran away from home.

The way Soderbergh tells this story isn’t unique among his work. He often presents movies in his cut-up fashion, playing with time as he juxtaposes seemingly incongruous scenes on top of each other. The Limey stands out with just how meticulously he weaves his structure into his story. The structure becomes the story as Wilson builds on and recalls memories. One thought or strand leads to another and then to another before looping back to the original idea. It’s the same way that one image leads down one path and then splits again before coming back to the original point. Nothing is clear and linear but you have to watch for the connections and understand that time isn’t a straight path but a collection of individual moments that come together to form a story.

— Scott Cederlund