Hello, Walter Hill. Good riddance to Soderbergh
This week America’s most overrated filmmaker, Steven Soderbergh, gets booted out the arena by the country’s most underrated great filmmaker, Walter Hill.
The simultaneous release of Hill’s Bullet to the Head and Soderbergh’s Side Effects perfectly contrasts the art of genre filmmaking with the pretense of art filmmaking as genre. After a decade off, Hill returns to cinema with a Sylvester Stallone action movie that streamlines moral complexity and aesthetic mastery while Soderbergh pretends another exploration of topical issues by dully manipulating thriller clichés.
Side Effect’s story of medical malfeasance involves a pill-giving psychiatrist (Jude Law) and his waif-victim patient (Rooney Mara)–the girl with an insider-trading monkey on her back. Really, it’s much less interesting than a law-breaking hitman forced to regulate his conscience in relentless tests of his manhood. The former is schlock, the latter is art–if you understand the depth and creativity of kinetic, poetic narrative. That legacy has always inspired Hill’s artistry.
Sad thing is, Hill’s artistry has been obscured during the CGI era when the media, through a coterie of film critics, has led audiences to prefer movies that use formulaic plotting, special effects and gratuitous violence instead of action that distills moral complexity. All the negative reviews for Bullet to the Head come from ignorant perspectives that accept action movie conventions only when no moral issues are involved (or when the issues are confused as in Zero Dark Thirty and Django Unchained).
Right now, this ignorance complements the simple-minded sentimentality that has overtaken the culture in response to the Newtown grade school massacre. Audiences and critics are unprepared for the moral issues of violence that are inherent in Hill’s brilliant storytelling and meaningful exegeses of fighting, killing and gunplay through cinematic graphics.
It is true ignorance to prefer Soderbergh’s cynical drama of drug-play. Despite its Big Pharma pretense, Side Effects isn’t really about anything; Soderbergh’s contrived storyline is cruelly indifferent to the failures of medicine, Big Pharma and health treatment. It is to psychotherapy what Magic Mike was to male sexuality–a boring striptease, a psychological dodge. Perhaps the reason critics couldn’t appreciate Hill’s Bullet to the Head is that the profession succumbs to gun control mania and refuses to acknowledge Hill’s illustration of violence as an aspect of human weakness–as when Stallone tells a villain “If you lay one hand on her, I’ll kill you with a rock.” The expression wittily conveys Hill’s understanding of basic Neanderthal instinct–a narrative analysis of human impulse. That’s what genre once routinely provided until the lack of aesthetic skill was replaced by formula as in Soderbergh’s lousy genre pastiches such as Contagion and Haywire. Critics who praised Haywire after having ignored Columbiana claimed “smartness” rather connoisseurship.
Soderbergh’s Traffic, Erin Brokovich and Magic Mike belong to an era of cynical banality while Hill’s sharp, inventive technique seen in The Warriors, Geronimo and Undisputed went unappreciated (and underground in TV projects like Deadwood and Broken Trail). Bullet to the Head is an exhilarating revival of efficient, expressive storytelling while Side Effects combines Psycho trick-casting and deceptive plot devices to disguise indifference to its characters’ moral crises. Soderbergh’s shallow tale exposes callousness about “the culture,” an insincere money and class critique. Hill’s critique is inherent in the efficacy and splendor of his action and montage. Fanboys raised on CGI won’t notice the difference but true movie lovers will thrill to it (and to dialogue like “You had me at ‘Fuck you.’” Beat that, Tarantino.)
Soderbergh replaces the topical, medical subject of Nick Ray’s Bigger Than Life with nihilistic cynicism and frantic performances by Law, Mara and an at-sea Catherine Zeta-Jones while Hill explores post-9/11 ideas of conflicted morality: Stallone gives a new iconic performance as a man at odds with the law and Hill distills his story in the most exuberant American kinetics of the past few years.
We are currently at a cultural crossroads perfectly demonstrated by Soderbergh’s celebrated decadence and Hill’s misunderstood innovation. If Side Effects is Soderbergh’s last film (as promised), give him a urgent farewell. Bullet to the Head’s excitement inspires a welcome-back for Hill.