Transactions pervade Steven Soderbergh’s filmography at every level, expanding upon both character and theme as they illustrate what people will exchange for what they really need. The confidences exchanged in sex, lies, and videotape (1989) expose and overcome both sexual and emotional dysfunction, while careers and and freedom are traded in both Out Of Sight (1998) and the Ocean’s trilogy (2001-2007) in the name of both romantic and platonic love. Che (2008) depicts a life sacrificed for ideals and Solaris (2002) a ceding of reality itself in order to correct past mistakes. The Girlfriend Experience (2009) traffics less in sex than expertise in exchange for companionship and self-worth, much as identity is traded for lifestyle in Behind The Candelabra (2013). Both Traffic (2000) and Contagion (2011) put lives at risk in order that others may thrive, while fortune and reputation are put on the line in Magic Mike (2012) to create opportunity.
The Limey (1999), ostensibly a caper from the margins of some other crime B-movie, is no exception. Its characters need to deal with the death of a young actress, but how they set about reaching the closure they seek reveals less about her than it does them. Her jailbird father Wilson, acting school friend Eduardo, best friend Elaine and lover Terry Valentine, the man who killed her, tell each other about Jenny, how she lived and how she died, revealing secrets, regrets and aspirations in a series of transactions made by the living in an attempt to repay the debt they owe the dead woman.
The Limey was also a means for Soderbergh to achieve a kind of closure for a dead child of his own: The Underneath (1995), a film he considered stillborn even during filming. A remake of Criss Cross (1949), it shares noir sensibilities with The Limey along with the theme of a man atoning for his past, but also establishes the intricate non-linear storytelling techniques Soderbergh and editor Anne V. Coates would further develop to such great effect in Elmore Leonard adaptation Out Of Sight, the film which revived Soderbergh’s then-moribund critical acclaim and set the stage for The Limey.
Lem Dobbs’ script had been years in gestation, initially as an almost entirely linear narrative bearing comparisons with hard-boiled revenge movies Point Blank (1967) and Get Carter (1971). Soderbergh’s casting of 60s icons Terrence Stamp and Peter Fonda as mirrored protagonists Wilson and Valentine leans hard into the film’s focus on personal history, allowing the cultural capital of Fonda’s Easy Rider (1969) persona and scenes from Ken Loach’s Tramp-starring Poor Cow (1967) to do the heavy lifting of creating their backstory, but the pair are defined by their own transactions. Record producer Valentine is running scared after committing the ultimate '60s crime of selling out, and now clings to his youth by dating almost interchangeable young women he regales with oft-repeated tales of his heyday. Wilson traded freedom for crime, seeing Jenny grow up only in the increments which lead her to call him “Daddy the friendly ghost”, and now he has nothing left to lose, granted total freedom in his quest for revenge.
The use of metatext as expository shorthand in The Limey is integral to Soderbergh’s stated aim of finding new cinematic devices to deliver information to the audience, and specifically to illustrate the process of thinking. At its simplest this takes the form of recurring images of Wilson in contemplative mood which are then intercut in an elaborate tapestry of flashes both forward and back as he visualises, executes and then recalls his next move, but extends to the scenes in which he, Eduardo and Elaine discuss their relationships with Jenny, long conversations which seamlessly jump between locations while leaving the dialogue unbroken in order to emphasise what was said over where.
It’s a graphic depiction of the fragmentary nature of memory, editor Sarah Flack turning the shards of story into fleeting reflections that capture Jenny between shifting planes of recollection. Essentially absent from the film, we are told how she affected those around her and see her moral strength in flashbacks which are visually coded as imperfectly-imagined reveries, but never hear her voice. Elaine tells Wilson Jenny had been neither embarrassed nor ashamed by him, only disappointed, and he sees her pouting face. Eduardo tells him she met Valentine on a beach, and he sees her scampering by the ocean on a family trip to the seaside. In death, Jenny herself becomes the friendly ghost.
Wilson’s attempt to atone for his absences is the beating heart of The Limey, encapsulated in a scene at the top of the stairs in Valentine’s home where he finds a single black and white photograph of Jenny. In thirty simple seconds Stamp wordlessly unpacks the entire movie as Wilson casts his eyes down, crushed by reproach, jaw working as he contemplates how he failed her, then forces himself to look her in the eye. Taking the photo is an act of reclamation, a statement that he is now present for her in the way he wasn’t as she grew up, after her empty threats to inform the police when he was planning a job failed to prevent his absences, a bluff that became a game between father and daughter until, despairing, she left.
The tragedy that finally confronts Wilson is that their game cost Jenny her life once she discovered Valentine’s own criminal activities and threatened to turn him in. On a Big Sur beach the tide rolls in as an injured Valentine insists she would have done it, but Wilson, knowing better, is shaken by the revelation that the tough little girl who tried to protect him from himself could not protect herself from another father figure, one who didn’t understand.
Recognising their shared loss and their equal culpability, his need to exact revenge evaporates as he realises he will find no closure in further violence. Wilson’s transaction with Valentine remains incomplete, annulled by The Limey’s reflections of Jenny.