Dossier (Favorite Films): Soderbergh's Out of Sight

Steven Soderbergh is on my list of favorite directors. His movies—wildly dissimilar in tone and subject matter—are clearly related by the way he uses the camera, edits scenes together, and plays with narrative.

Out of Sight is easily Jennifer Lopez's best role, back when artistic cred was more important to her than being real and counting her rocks. Lopez plays Karen Sisco, a Federal Marshall who unwittingly intervenes in an escape attempt by career bankrobber Jack Foley (George Clooney). Sisco pursues Foley as he makes his way to "the last big job" in Detroit.

The first knockout in this film is the tete-a-tete between Sisco and Foley in the trunk of his escape car. Foley, having just made his way through a tunnel from the state prison to the parking lot, covered in dirt and sewage, grabs Sisco, dumps her in her trunk, and hops in. The brake lights light the scene as Foley engages in casual talk; Sisco, at first, puts him off. The subject seamlessly moves to films and Foley, in relating himself to Clyde Barrow, touches on Network. The moment is the first time Sisco cracks a smile. The tension—sexual and emotional—is palpable.

The hallmarks of Soderbergh are his surprising use of standard Hollywood techniques. Hand-held camerawork, usually reserved for scenes involving disorientation & chaos (such as fight or chase scenes) here punctuate the erotic conversation between Lopez & Clooney as they meet for a drink, playing each other in an innocent game of what-if-we-were-other-people.

This is the best sex scene ever committed to film.

Soderbergh jolts the narrative with a series of jump cuts back and forth between the scene in the bar and a scene, later, in Karen's hotel room. Foley's hand gently touches Sisco's. Soderbergh doesn't "blow it" by showing them having sex; instead, the scene is about foreplay, disarming in its tenderness as this proverbial cat and his/her mouse (because these roles are unclear) disarm each other.

Other Soderbergh trademarks are here as well. A master of lighting, Soderbergh clearly delineates this film much the way he does in Erin Brockovich and Traffic: each location takes on a distinctive hue: the California of Lompoc Federal Penitentiary is overwhelmed by natural sunlight, washing these scenes out; pinks and pastels dominate the lush greenery of Miami; and wintery Detroit is drab in shades of blue and black. Soderbergh used this to genius effect in Traffic, and more obviously, because he needed those distinctions to aid the audience in following the disparate threads of narrative.

The best filmic effect used here is the freeze frame—and it's surprising because the freeze frame in another filmmaker's hand is tacky. But Soderbergh uses it to help us recognize characters at different points in time, as well as to punctuate the rhythm of the scenes. Soderberhg is a master editor, and this is never more clear than the way he is able to shuffle a film's narrative without alienating the viewer: Out of Sight exists in two points in time, spanning an overall length of about two and a half years. The two points (arbitrarily noted as "now" and "then") build on each other as the "then" moments invade the "now," building on the information we have of the characters and events.

In the end, Out of Sight—while hot—doesn't lull us into a false sense of the world. We are who we are. What we bring to each other isn't as relevant as who we are when we arrive.


  1. It's funny you mention SS, because I was just thinking this morning that I'd like to see Traffic again. I liked Out of Sight, and I'm not a fan of either George or JLo. The movie was sexy without being exploitative, and that's rare. I think that tension SS creates drew me into the story and even allowed me to forgive some of the weaker parts of the script. Thanks for writing about it.

  2. Pardon me. But what’s with this new look? Looks like Spring came on early. Lovely.