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Steven Soderbergh is a compulsively interesting filmmaker. Here’s why.

Whether he’s making weird experiments like Unsane or crowd pleasers like the Oceans trilogy, Soderbergh is interested in money, experimentation, and messing with how we see reality.

Julia Roberts in Erin Brokovich, Clive Owen in The Knick, Kate Winslet in Contagion, and Matthew McConaughey in Magic Mike
Julia Roberts in Erin Brokovich, Clive Owen in The Knick, Kate Winslet in Contagion, and Matthew McConaughey in Magic Mike
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

As names of movie directors go, Steven Soderbergh’s is familiar, though not at the level of someone like Christopher Nolan or Quentin Tarantino. But if you’ve been even a casual moviegoer over the past 20 years, there’s a good chance you’ve either seen a Soderbergh movie or seen a movie influenced by Soderbergh. His latest, out March 23, is Unsane.

That’s because the multitalented filmmaker — he directs, writes, edits, sits behind the camera, and does a lot of other things best described as “messing around” — has had a finger in a lot of developments in cinema over the past couple of decades. He’s blurred the lines between fiction and nonfiction. He’s fiddled with formats and formulas. He’s pushed against accepted wisdom about the ways movies get made.

And while Soderbergh is definitely a cinephile’s filmmaker, with a bag of delightfully nerdy cinematic tricks and a roving, inquisitive sense of curiosity, no one could accuse him of being an arthouse elitist. In films like the Ocean’s trilogy, Erin Brockovich, and Magic Mike, he’s more than proved his ability to appeal to a general audience.

Claire Foy in Unsane, which Soderbergh shot on iPhones.
Claire Foy in Unsane, which Soderbergh shot on iPhones.
20th Century Fox

Soderbergh’s filmography is a pile-up of genres — from blockbuster heist remakes to tiny, weird experimental films to prestige TV. But no matter what he’s tinkering with, Soderbergh is always looking at the world through green-tinted glasses; as the New York Times’s A.O. Scott wrote of him in 2013, “Soderbergh’s tales of sex, drugs, illness and crime are also about money.” In Soderbergh’s worlds, money is the root of all human interaction.

Following his 2013 HBO film about Liberace, Behind the Candelabra, the director announced a hiatus from making feature films. But, true to form, he filled the time by (among other things) writing, directing, and shooting two seasons of the highly acclaimed Cinemax show The Knick and executive-producing Starz’s The Girlfriend Experience, a limited series “inspired” by his 2009 film of the same name.

Last August he returned to multiplexes with the heist comedy Logan Lucky, an unabashedly rednecked cousin to the Ocean’s trilogy, that has h the filmmaker’s unmistakable fingerprints all over it. Though it was mostly ignored by audiences, it played well with critics, and felt in some ways like a return to the director’s mainstream heyday around the turn of the millennium.

Now, he’s back to indulging his more idiosyncratic side with the new Unsane, a movie that Soderbergh announced he shot in secret last July, on iPhones, and financed himself. It’s a thriller starring Claire Foy about mental health, capitalism run amok, and not being sure if you’re going crazy.

Those themes are common markers of Soderbergh’s work — right down to the way it was shot. Here are three things to know about his movies, and why they matter.

Soderbergh likes to mess with our perceptions about what’s real and what’s not

The idea of blurring the lines between fiction and nonfiction is hardly new to cinema, and Soderbergh isn’t the first to do it. But for a filmmaker who primarily makes fiction features (as opposed to documentaries), he frequently slips in sly references to the “real” world — the world of the audience — that make viewers feel like the curtain that divides us from the people we’re watching onscreen has been blown aside for a moment.

Sometimes this comes in the form of a giant wink at the audience — for instance, in Ocean’s Twelve, when Julia Roberts plays a character named Tess who is brought into the plot partly for her uncanny resemblance to … Julia Roberts:

There’s a hint of this self-referentiality, too, in Logan Lucky, in a way that actually seems calculated to tweak critics. How do I know? Well, I’m one of them: when I first watched the film in a screening room full of critics, I felt pleased that I’d had a smart idea about Logan Lucky — that it was like the Ocean’s movies, but in West Virginia! What a great idea for an article, right?

Then a character walked onscreen and referred to the heist plot as being “Ocean’s 7-11.” Oh well.

Exactly how much of this kind of referentiality is in the screenplays and how much is the director’s input is unclear — Soderbergh rarely writes his own films, and doesn’t have a screenwriting credit on either Logan Lucky or the Ocean’s films (nor did he write the screenplay for Unsane). But it’s fair to say he is attracted to projects that will let him smudge the edges of reality a bit.

A great example of this is his 2009 film The Girlfriend Experience, which starred actual adult film actress Sasha Grey as a high-end escort. The film, set in the days leading up to the 2008 presidential election, is markedly devoid of actual sexual activity but loaded with talk of the financial collapse — especially since Grey’s character’s clients are primarily well-to-do Wall Street types, some of whom have fallen on tough times. Part of the film’s marketing strategy leaned on the provocative move of casting a porn star as an escort, who makes her living fulfilling fantasies in the film too. But the film shows those fantasies as closely tied to profit, just like porn itself. It’s a remarkable and effective move that keeps the film interesting.

Sasha Grey in The Girlfriend Experience
Sasha Grey in The Girlfriend Experience.

Or there’s the 2003 HBO series K Street, which Soderbergh created, directed, and produced alongside George Clooney (with whom he’s had a strong and fruitful filmmaking partnership both on screen and off). The show “starred” political strategists (and power couple) James Carville and Mary Matalin, who played themselves. Each episode was shot within a few days of airing and improvised around the week’s political events, with major figures in politics making cameos.

But unlike Showtime’s more recent show The Circus, which purports to be straight-up documentary, K Street purposely made it hard to tell, at times, whether people onscreen were playing a version of themselves — as they had in his improvisational 2002 feature Full Frontal — or acting candidly. Sometimes it wasn’t even clear if they knew they were onscreen.

In one notable episode, Carville gives a line to Howard Dean that he later used in a debate, causing a stir for the way the “show” had bled out into real life. K Street only lasted one season, and most of its popularity was restricted to viewers in Washington, DC (for perhaps obvious reasons) — but it did much to presage the reality TV future of American politics.

Soderbergh has worked on experimental projects that intend to make fuzzy the borders between audience and onscreen universe; his six-part miniseries for HBO, Mosaic, which was released in January, is both a show and an interactive experience via an app. But even when his work colors between more conventional storytelling lines, it’s always still interested in the ways entertainment can sometimes subsume the entertained. Behind the Candlelabra, for instance, told the story of the flamboyant pianist Liberace and his lover Scott Thorson, who becomes caught up with Liberace’s life precisely because his fantasies of joining the pianist’s world overtake him.

Michael Douglas and Matt Damon in Behind the Candelabra
Michael Douglas and Matt Damon in Behind the Candelabra.

For an entertainer, this is a bold topic: You run the risk of alienating or confusing your audience by distracting them with fourth-wall-breaking tricks. But Soderbergh pulls it off just fine, perhaps because he seems to move seamlessly between film, TV, and experimental mediums, as well as genres. It seems like they’re all of a piece for him, all buzzing in his head at once.

That element of blurring the lines between reality and fiction is the subject of Unsane, too. Sawyer, played by Claire Foy, finds herself committed against her will to a mental hospital, where it seems that a man who was stalking her is working as an orderly. Or is he? For most of the film, she can’t quite tell if what she thinks is happening is actually happening, or if maybe she’s as unstable as the hospital staff says. And we’re not sure, either. The film draws on our uncertainty to become a thriller, and when it works, it’s chilling and unsettling.

Soderbergh loves to test the boundaries of cinema and the business around it

You never really know what Soderbergh is going to do next, and that contributes to the buzz that springs up with each new project he takes on. Even if it’s kind of a failure, it’s almost guaranteed to be an interesting failure. And in the midst of a risk-averse Hollywood, that’s a welcome distinction.

Soderbergh hit the ground running with his 1989 feature debut Sex, Lies, and Videotape, which won him a whole stack of awards, including the Palme d’Or at Cannes — the international film world’s biggest honor — and the audience prize at Sundance, as well as an Oscar nomination. Roger Ebert dubbed him the “poster boy for the Sundance generation,” and that mattered: Sex, Lies, and Videotape upended the film world by bringing prestige and attention to independent film and making “indie” synonymous with daring, artistically adventurous fare. Miramax bought the film and released it, and that move turned the Sundance Film Festival into the big event it is now, with industry players in attendance.

Andie McDowell in Sex, Lies, and Videotape
Andie MacDowell in Sex, Lies, and Videotape.

But he didn’t stop there. After Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Soderbergh went through some dry years, with flops aplenty. But he never really gave up experimenting, and after notching another success in 1998 with Out of Sight, he continued to mix more conventional fare, like Erin Brockovich and the Ocean’s movies, with improvisational projects like Full Frontal and K Street.

In 2005, Soderbergh made Bubble, which was mostly considered a head-scratching choice at the time but a mere 12 years later seems almost prophetic. The movie itself is almost beside the point; it’s the release strategy that’s interesting. Bubble was the first feature film to have a “day-and-date” release scheme, premiering in theaters and on VOD on the same day.

That Bubble was basically a commercial flop in both venues doesn’t really matter. What’s more interesting is that a dozen years before Netflix would come under fire at the Cannes Film Festival for employing the same strategy with its original films — including two films in competition at the 2017 festival, Okja and The Meyerowitz Stories, both from major directors — Soderbergh had already tried it.

A scene from Soderbergh’s Bubble
A scene from Soderbergh’s Bubble.

There are plenty of other examples, from Soderbergh’s move into TV to test that medium’s limits to the decision to circumvent American theatrical distribution altogether for Behind the Candelabra. But Unsane feels like a particularly characteristic move for the director in this respect. Soderbergh is not the first to shoot a feature on iPhones (The Florida Project director Sean Baker’s 2015 film Tangerine, also shot on iPhones, took Sundance by storm), but he’s has since announced that he’d like to keep shooting this way.

Why does this matter? One problem with Hollywood is that its business models are highly risk-averse, contributing to everything from movies’ lack of diversity to the endless, boring cycle of sequels and reboots. (Amusingly, Logan Lucky works as a kind of Ocean’s reboot for Trump country.) And there’s nothing inherently wrong about that. Movie studios are businesses. Turning as big a profit as possible is what they do.

But moving the business of filmmaking forward — finding new ways of making and distributing films that may also put more money into the pockets of artists and creators — requires people who are adventurous risk takers, willing to make a film that flops as long as it does something nobody’s done before.

Soderbergh has managed to do this consistently throughout his career, and he doesn’t appear to be slowing down. And the way he makes movies doesn’t just push the films artistically — it pushes what’s possible in filmmaking. If a good movie can be made cheaply, then anyone can make a movie, right?

Julia Roberts in Erin Brokovich
Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich.

Soderbergh’s overriding thematic interest is in money, class, and human relationships

The way Soderbergh messes with movies and the business around them is of a piece with his favorite narrative theme: how money makes or breaks human relationships.

It’s hard to point to just one example of this, because it’s pervasive throughout his work. Unsane certainly qualifies: one of the movie’s key points hinges around insurance companies’ plots to milk even the healthy for money. The Ocean’s films are about swanky people pulling off heists, each for his or her own personal reason. Erin Brockovich is about an ordinary working-class woman — the film makes a point of how her appearance and way of speaking are class markers that set her apart from others — who triumphs over a corporation. Bubble is set in a decaying Midwestern town and centers on three workers at a doll factory. Traffic, Out of Sight, Side Effects, Contagion, Behind the Candelabra — they all deal with money changing hands in various high-pressure situations and the treachery that can ensue.

Once again, The Girlfriend Experience might be the clearest example of this: It’s a film where money almost literally stands in for sex, and once the money dries up, the sex does too. The illusion of intimacy stands only as long as the cash flows — and that realization upends the power dynamic, already unsteady for the clients whose livelihoods were thrown into jeopardy by the Great Recession.

Matthew McConaughey in Magic Mike
Matthew McConaughey in Magic Mike.

That same narrative device — men thrown into economic uncertainty — surfaces in one of Soderbergh’s biggest crowd pleasers (and one of his masterpieces), the 2012 comedy Magic Mike, which stars Channing Tatum in a film loosely based on his own life experience. Tatum plays Mike, who’d like to be a furniture designer but winds up becoming a stripper after the odd jobs he picks up can’t pay his bills. He takes another young man, a college dropout, under his wing after he sees him trying to get a construction job. The club at which they perform is staffed by men who have gone into this line of work largely because they can’t find another way to make a living, and have come to enjoy (most of the time, anyhow) nights spent under the female gaze — but who worry about what will happen after they get too old for the job. It’s a gender role reversal, sure, but like The Full Monty, it’s a commentary on the agency of men who cast about for careers in an economically uncertain environment.

Though Soderbergh’s show The Knick is totally different from either of these, it also carries this thread along. The show stars Clive Owen as a Dr. William Thackeray, a daring, experimental surgeon in the Knickerbocker Hospital at the turn of the century. Though many things about the hospital and its staff are progressive, some clear delineations lie between them — especially between the white doctors and one black doctor (played by André Holland) who’s more qualified than most of the staff but is rebuffed by many of them.

One important narrative concern in The Knick is Dr. Thackeray’s ongoing research, which turns up results that challenge his era’s commonly accepted ideas about the connection between people’s race, character, level of income, and medical health. That common belief allowed the wealthy and high-class to believe that their relatively better health had as much to do with their inherent superiority as it did with not having to starve in rat-infested tenements.

Clive Owen in The Knick
Clive Owen in The Knick.

“Sickness isn’t a result of poor character,” Thackeray explains at one point, a sentiment he has to repeat over and over. “Germs don’t examine your bank book.” At the beginning of the second season, newly clean from a heroin addiction (for now), Thackeray tries to convince the board of the hospital — mostly wealthy men — that they should let him come back to do research on addiction. They’re horrified: Addiction is an indication of bad character, something for low life! Thackeray offers to inject one of them with drugs for a week and see how his morality holds up, which seems to shut them up for a bit.

It’s a kind of thesis for Soderbergh’s career-long question, which seems to be about whether money corrupts personal and social relationships beyond repair, but also whether economic deprivation makes one person better or worse than another.

Claire Foy in Unsane
Claire Foy in Unsane
20th Century Fox

Logan Lucky was part of this exploration, too. By taking the Ocean’s premise — a multitalented bunch of scoundrels band together to pull off the ultimate heist — and setting it in a cash-strapped West Virginia town, where you might have to drive hundreds of miles to get a job and still be kicked off the payroll for “preexisting conditions,” Soderbergh has answered at least some of his questions. The goal of the Logan Lucky gang is to rip off a company that screwed them and the fat cats who benefit, and they’re doing it (in an absolutely perfect manner) by using their knowledge of the NASCAR arena. And in the end, the film actually comes down on the side of at least some cash-poor people being mighty rich in virtue.

And yet Soderbergh is no moralist. He has an uncanny knack for seeing every movie, every character, as a fresh slate on which to experiment, to try out new ideas. His career is one that’s always worth watching. Unsane, in the end, is a movie with too many ideas and too little idea of what it’s really about. But it’s also emblematic of Soderbergh’s filmmaking style, where the only thing you can be sure of is that something surprising is on the way — and even if it’s unsettling, unnerving, or a downright mess, it will certainly be worth watching.

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