This week, America’s most overrated filmmaker, Steven Soderbergh, gets booted out of 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 while dully manipulating thriller clichés.
Side Effects’ 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 appreciate the depth and creativity of kinetic, poetic narrative. That legacy has always inspired Hill’s artistry.
Soderbergh’s Traffic, Erin Brokovich and Magic Mike reigned over 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 is callous about “the culture,” offering an insincere money and class critique as shallow as his underlit videography. 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 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.
If Side Effects is Soderbergh’s last film (as promised), give him an urgent farewell. Bullet to the Head’s excitement inspires a “welcome back” for Hill.
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