Few Hollywood directors have shown the versatility of Steven Soderbergh. Whether in the seedy, small-town perversion of Sex, Lies and Videotape, the discombobulated antics of Schizopolis, or the diamond-crusted glamour of Out of Sight and Ocean’s 11, his heavily stylized oeuvre has the sporadically brilliant, collage-like disarray of a hyperactive prodigy. Now, with his new, ultra-low-budget, digitally filmed feature Bubble, this virtuosic cinematic maestro once again stakes out new territory with an eerie, affectless foray into the low-income lives of the rural working class. Neither traditionally entertaining nor entirely easy to dismiss, Bubble is a bumpy back-road collision between amateur theater, home-video voyeurism, and the social awareness of a working-class parable.
Made on a budget that, by Hollywood standards, would seem barely able to cover the cost of a thrift-store shoestring, the film features a cast of non-actors culled from the Ohio community in which it was shot. The performers, including Debbie Doebereiner, who was discovered working behind the counter at a Wendy’s, were encouraged to tailor their factory-worker roles with personal histories in mind. Though the general story arc–a love triangle that devolves into a rather banal murder mystery–had already been sketched, the performers outfitted their characters in the paycheck-to-paycheck threads of their own dead-end lives.
The movie’s plot serves mainly as a clothesline on which to hang a series of vignettes about the rural lower class. Martha (Doebereiner), a heavyset, late-30s doll-factory employee, shares a close platonic friendship with her early-20s coworker Kyle (Dustin James Ashley). That relationship is threatened, however, when the attractive, young Rose (Misty Dawn Wilkins) is hired at the factory and seems poised to divert Kyle’s affections. Eventually a murder occurs, and a detective (Decker Moody) is brought in to investigate. It all sounds fairly trite, but, as in so many David Lynch films, its surface conventionality masks an undercurrent of menace.
Soderbergh shot the film on High Definition (HD) video, lending it a crisp, hyper-real clarity, like some hopped-up, steroidal home video. His camera refuses to move, fixating, instead, on the objects that surround the three factory workers at the film’s center. Like David Fincher, Soderbergh understands that character is inextricably bound up in small, physical details: the furniture, food, and tools that clutter our daily routines. In Bubble, we’re given long, still, unblinking views of fast food, worn furniture, factory appliances, and break-room ashtrays. It’s a litany of signals marking lives of toil in which the stillness of the shots reflects the entrenched hopelessness of the protagonists. The effect is uncomfortably flat; it blends the blank sterility of a hospital lobby with the static, unnaturally preserved aura of an old museum.
Nearly every scene bleeds with working-class woe as the characters engage in endless discussion of their varied struggles. They work multiple jobs, have unreliable transportation, can’t afford healthcare, and find saving money impossible. From the young to the old, they seem beyond hope.
In the midst of filming a war scene for a Terminator film, director James Cameron once remarked that his set decorators couldn’t create convincingly fake rubble.Subsequently, the film’s bombed-out ruins had to be imported from real war zones. Here, Soderbergh has imported human rubble, a cast of performers whose existence seems girded by muffled despair. Caged in by dirt roads and fake wood paneling, their lives aren’t just stalled out; they’ve been stripped apart, sold for scrap, and tossed in the junk heap.
With all this focus on the characters’ destitute situation, the film initially seems to be an exercise in Marxist dramaturgy, decrying the plight of the working class and the cruelty of the system that keeps them down. But while these characters exist in a Beckettian sphere of inarticulate anxiety and emotional unfulfillment, the film refuses to simply sink into the self-pitying marshes of existentialism and wither away. Slowly and subtly, without any of the self-righteous snootiness that infects so many politically oriented films, Soderbergh sneaks in a novel idea: People’s choices may be just as responsible for their situation as any supposedly oppressive system.
Thus the film becomes about the ways in which even the humblest, most pleasant people can make choices that adversely affect their lives. Rose, we find out, has a daughter, a fact which she flippantly blows off as a “bad decision.” She follows up on this statement by engaging in an unconsidered, emotional dispute over drugs and money with an ex-boyfriend. Kyle and Rose complain of their inability to save money while heading into a bar to blow their small bonuses on beer. The overweight Martha talks of shaping up through exercise, but she inevitably ends up eating pizza alone. Even the film’s murder-mystery resolution, which is hardly a narrative shocker, chips away at the barriers of self-delusion that allow people to refuse responsibility.
Throughout his career, Steven Soderbergh has displayed a pervasive restlessness, always gearing up for some new bit of experimentation. Here, his most surprising notion isn’t the miniscule-budget HD format, but his unwillingness to cave to a myopic vision of a world in which monolithic systems dominate and human choice is stripped of its power. In Soderbergh’s hands, what might have been another shrill bit of liberal Hollywood agitprop ends up as a reasoned human drama about the aftershocks of individual decisions. This Bubble bursts with innovation.
–Peter Suderman is assistant editorial director at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.