The Limey
directed by Steven Soderbergh
(Artisan, 1999)

A mesmerizing mosaic of image and sound, Steven Soderbergh's The Limey is a tale of revenge, regret and biding one's time until the distractions clear away and only answers remain.

In a seamless collection of flashbacks and real-time footage and conversations, Soderbergh has pulled together a remarkable performance by Terrence Stamp as a London career criminal, Wilson, whose daughter has died in L.A. Released from prison, he embarks on a journey to California -- and through his daughter's life -- to find out whether Jennifer died in an accidental car crash or had a little help. He's not a grieving father suddenly emboldened by his loss: he's always played around the edges, and he knows exactly what corners people are willing to cut to protect their own backs.

Wilson's main focus is on Valentine, played by Peter Fonda, an icon of '60s music promotion who still has the isolation of fame, and the delusions of untouchability. Valentine's a contemporary of Wilson's, but with the money and the notoriety that allows him to slip out the back while the dirty deals are done. And he was Jennifer's lover when she died.

Both Fonda and Stamp are astonishing. The Limey has a tricky quality to it, a violence that's quiet and a inexorable pace that's never rushed, never frantic, though images of 30 years ago -- including inspired footage from Stamp's 1967 film Poor Cow, in which he played a London criminal -- collide with dialogue from the '90s. Soderbergh has melded images, like a recurring photograph of Jennifer, in a way that makes sense the first time you see them, and only have more emotional impact as it becomes clear how they fit into the narrative.

In lesser hands, it would have been too confusing. But here, the repetition, in different forms and in different voices, is like a dream: disjointed, but all integral to understanding Wilson's patience, his conviction and his willingness to do what must be done.

Once in L.A., Wilson looks up Ed, a friend of Jennifer's who mailed him newspaper accounts of her death. Luis Guzman's Ed is a match for Wilson, low-key and taciturn, and with a reliability that the father can trust. Ed steers Wilson to some middlemen Jennifer argued with shortly before she died and, after Wilson's visit to them, only one escapes alive. Soon, Valentine and his bodyguard/adviser know someone is after him. But who? Wilson's motivation isn't guns, it isn't drugs, and even after they know his identity they can't relate to what drives him. And Wilson isn't simply after revenge. He lives in that weariness that comes after rage and revenge.

After he and Ed crash a party at Valentine's, and after Wilson walks away from a chance to kill Jennifer's lover, Ed wonders what held Wilson back. "It would've been too easy," Wilson says simply. "(Valentine's) gotta know why." Through it all, Jennifer's relationship with her long-absent father, her fatal anger with Valentine, turn around in full circle as the images of her childhood and brief adulthood collide. Never a gratuitous moment in The Limey, but lots of gratification.

[ by Jen Kopf ]

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