Steven Soderbergh’s recent use of digital photography in Contagion (2011) and The Girlfriend Experience (2009) has a painterly quality. With Haywire, he proved that he could effortlessly achieve a nuanced look using the still burgeoning method of video photography. But with Magic Mike, he continues to hone the kind of glassy, flat but simultaneously elaborate aesthetic he’s used for his more recent films. The broad beats of Magic Mike’s narrative may be contrived, but Soderbergh enriches his usual main theme—of getting what you want by consenting to be exploited—through the film’s highly stylized look. Soderbergh’s latest is at its best when its camerawork is most eccentric.
Based loosely on star Channing Tatum’s own time as a stripper, Magic Mike is full of sequences designed to subtly disorient or dazzle viewers. Soderbergh constantly calls attention to the artificial nature of his imagery, using lens flares and, in a scene where Tatum raises his voice, unpolished audio to draw attention to his aesthetic and alienate viewers.
Magic Mike’s story may not initially seem like it’s all about Mike, but that’s because it reflects his disillusionment with his job rather than narrating events in his life. At first, Mike thinks he’s an active agent in his life story—but he’s not. He realizes this after recruiting Adam (Alex Pettyfer), a naive, unemployed 19 year-old, to work with him at Xquisite, his strip club. Mike gives up his agency long enough to bond with Adam and develop a crush on Brooke (Cody Horn), Adam’s sister. But predictably, Mike eventually realizes that stripping is only a stopgap solution, and it has actually made it difficult for him to become financially independent. He grows to realize that he’s only valuable to Dallas (Matthew McConaughey), the owner of the club Mike dances at, as long as he’s doing what Dallas wants him to.
Mike has contrived, generic reasons for wanting to divorce himself from his scantily clad livelihood. But they’re inconsequential; Soderbergh establishes his character’s true motivation in a thoughtful, albeit blunt, way. Bear in mind: sophistication is rarely combined with audiovisual elegance in Soderbergh’s films. This is apparent in the way Soderbergh uses so much soft focus; his visual compositions all have uniform, flat look backgrounds. Shapes move behind the main figures, but the shapes are relatively indistinct. Additionally, Soderbergh’s characters are constantly being projected on. In a crucial scene, Dallas teaches Adam how to dance at the club, posing in front of a wall-sized mirror. We see Adam learn to dance as it happens in the mirror, not directly; this neatly establishes the film’s main concern with symmetry and obstacles. When characters want to really see each other, they appear to be positioned symmetrically. But the more out of sync with each other the characters get, the more visually different Soderbergh’s camerawork makes them appear, and hence the harder it is for audiences to actually see Mike and his friends (Brooke pointedly admonishes Adam by telling him, “I can fucking see you”).
For example, Mike and Adam immediately form a shaky bond. The camera cuts back and forth between the two men as Mike drives Adam in his car for the first time. The men occupy separate spaces, but there is total symmetry to the shot-reverse shot visual structure of their conversations in the scene. The second time, Mike drives Adam home and, if you look hard enough, you can see that Adam is slightly better lit than Mike, that his head’s not as close to the right side of the frame as Mike’s is to the left side. The two have imperceptibly begun to drift apart. But in the third drive, Soderbergh shows the full-blown divide between the two men by creating a visibly rippling effect, suggesting that Mike and Adam are an outburst away from literally exploding at each other.
Soderbergh’s visual flourishes establish Magic Mike’s concerns better than anything his characters say. In one blunt but effective juxtaposition, Soderbergh first shows a rain-streaked window pane and then transitions to a shot of a bust Dallas has made of himself. Another thoughtful visual cue is when Soderbergh literally shows us the barriers between Brooke and Mike disappearing through a tracking shot. As the shot continues, fewer objects clutter the image’s foreground, leaving just Brooke and Mike, alone. Ironically, Magic Mike is probably dullest when most focused on its subject: when Mike and his colleagues strip on-stage, Soderbergh’s approach is at its most basic.
Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, The New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.