Why I Love… #133: The Limey

Year: 1999

Director: Steven Soderbergh

Stars: Terence Stamp, Luis Guzmán, Peter Fonda

Time has revealed Joss Whedon as a less than admirable source of influence, but I do have to tip my hat to the Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator for leading me to – I’ll say it – Steven Soderbergh’s finest.

Back around the turn of the millennium I was addicted to the various misadventures of the Sunnydale crew and, physical media addict that I am, collected all the boxsets and listened to all the audio commentaries. My favourite episode was the season 4 finale “Restless” in which Scooby-Gang regulars Buffy, Willow, Xander and Giles all had creatively realised dreams. Whedon wrote and directed the episode himself and duly supplied a talk track on the DVD.

When talking about his influences for the episode he mentioned a couple. Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut I had already seen, but mention of The Limey piqued my curiosity. And so a blind purchase of a now long-lost DVD was made.

Aside from perhaps sex, lies and videotape, The Limey would have been the first Steven Soderbergh film I laid eyes on. From the outset it didn’t sound like the kind of thing that could have influenced Whedon’s trippy TV installment. It’s a trim crime thriller about a career criminal out for vengeance in Los Angeles. At the time, certainly in Britain, tough gangster movies were all the rage, but they tended toward broad un-PC comedy or ultra-violent set pieces. Stateside things were seeming more interesting. The same year, Jim Jarmusch offered us Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai; a stripped back mob movie that tore out or subverted a number of genre trappings. But Soderbergh’s The Limey went further, recasting a tried and tested skeleton story as a calmly hallucinogenic odyssey. 

Terence Stamp is Wilson, a serial thief newly released from prison, who flies to LA when he receives word that his daughter Jennifer (Melissa George) has died in a car accident on Mulholland Drive. Wilson is convinced that Jenny’s death was anything but an accident and, with the tentative assistance of local man Ed (Luis Guzmán), sets himself on the trail of middle-aged music mogul Terry Valentine (Peter Fonda) who he deems responsible.

Sounds straight-forward enough. Lem Dobbs’ screenplay is peppered with lines of dialogue we’ve heard a hundred time over. Yet Soderbergh presents this boilerplate tale as though it were a memory returning to Wilson in a scattered cascade. Soderbergh’s editor Sarah Flack works wonders, chopping up scenes, dispersing dialogue, invoking a lingering sense of déjà vu. We frequently return to what one would perceive as the film’s opening image (it isn’t) of Wilson lost in contemplative thought while sat in his seat on a commercial flight. The Limey feels like an 89 minute film playing out in a single instant; all of it floating past the eyes of Wilson as he sits there, miles away.

Dislocation from standard linear narrative is one thing, but Soderbergh’s shuffled deck has more happening to enhance its sense of permanent daydream. He favours frequent saturation of his scenes in unnatural light, smothering characters in absinthe greens or burned out yellows. Using footage from Ken Loach’s Poor Cow to feather in memories of Wilson’s earlier ’60s heyday and applying filtering effects to imagery of Jenny that are reminiscent of those used by Lynch in Wild at Heart, the heady mix coalesces into something approaching delirium. It’s impact on Whedon’s TV dreamscapes are understandable.

It’s influence seems to reach further than Buffy the Vampire Slayer, however. With delicately threaded music provided by Cliff Martinez and its svelte vengeance story line, The Limey feels like a potent fore-bearer of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive. Wilson may talk more than Ryan Gosling’s toothpick chewing driver, but the films feel strongly linked, particularly in their neon-drenched depiction of the seedier backwaters of LA. One is prompted to wonder whether Refn hired Martinez specifically because of his work here for Soderbergh, creating a spider’s web connection between the two pictures. And, a year later (though due to its method of creation, technically concurrently) David Lynch would feature Melissa George as a similarly liminal presence in his own dreamy noir that centres around a triggering car accident on, yes, Mulholland Drive. There was something in the air back then….

Wilson’s cockney rhyming slang baffles most of the exceedingly American men and women he comes into contact with, furthering the sense that he’s a stranger in a strange land. LA, the city of dreams, seems like a dream he has to wade through, perhaps even one he’s just woken from on that plane journey. Thanks to the forget-me-not editing, The Limey could very well be construed as something occurring purely in an anonymous man’s imagination, making it feel like a meditation on storytelling itself.

Like Jarmusch’s offering, Soderbergh’s film skewers the idea of the movie villain. Peter Fonda’s music biz honcho Valentine and his… valet?… Avery (Barry Newman) aren’t over-sized menaces. They’re the kind of guys that you’d expect to see taken down by Columbo. Valentine’s fate is sealed when he slips up on a pebble for Christ’s sake.

At worst they’re weak sleazes. But Wilson has mythologised them. They’re his Final Bosses. To cease their existence is the only thing that might bring him solace. He’s embraced the vengeance myth, given himself over to its promises. But to Soderbergh – and us by extension – they’re as feeble as their ineffectual lackeys (Nicky Katt’s Stacy and his oddball partner ‘Uncle John’ (Joe Dellasandro) feel like they’ve wandered out of a Coen Brothers farce…). Their very weakness lends the end of the film emotional weight, when the truth of what got Jenny killed comes full circle to Wilson’s own perpetual bad habits. Though at a considerable remove, Wilson can be seen as a key player in her eventual fate.

Lionsgate’s recent blu-ray re-release (sadly a bare-bones affair) proved a perfect opportunity for me to reconnect with this woozy film for the first time in over a decade. It has held up particularly well. Well enough to make it into this occasional series of essays quite breezily. Soderbergh, of course, barely took a breath, diving into his Solaris remake and then the Oceans films and a lot more besides. He is one of American cinema’s most restless souls and he rarely repeats himself (to date only Haywire seems to specifically conjure similar imagery, but remains miles away in terms of construction). 

The Limey feels like a fulcrum of this identity; a constantly shifting and mythic paradigm that we’re invited to experience and then re-experience, like a returning memory, flashing by in an instant. “Sounds like you could use a rest,” a stranger says to Wilson at the film’s conclusion… At this Inception-esque moment I wonder, are we being invited to wake or being invited to dream?

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