Matt Damon and Steven Soderbergh have collaborated on nine films together and the low watermarks of their partnership are as worth watching as the high. Soderbergh is known for a hyper-stylized kind of filmmaking that uses wipes, cross-cutting, side-by-side action, and layered plots that slowly reveal themselves throughout the course of the film. For his part, Damon is one of the top movie stars in the world. He can play a leading man or a supporting character and has the range to be sinister, a hero, comical, or an everyman, and Soderbergh has the talent to tap into his versatility.
The director and actor have one major thing in common and that is their work ethic. Both Damon and Soderbergh have vast catalogs of movie credits, and are top talents in the industry. Damon won an Academy Award for co-writing the Good Will Hunting script with another frequent collaborator, Ben Affleck, and has also received three acting nominations across his career.Soderbergh may be even more lauded, notably being nominated for Best Director for Traffic and Erin Brockovich at the Academy Awards in the same year (he won for the former). Damon and Soderbergh rarely give a half-effort in their work, and it’s what makes their collaborations stand out.
Soderbergh’s 2008 epic historical biopic about Che Guevara is broken up into two separate parts. Che: Part Two follows the titular revolutionary (Benicio del Toro) as he helps the Bolivians fight a revolution. Like he often does in movies, Damon has a quick cameo as Father Schwarz, a German priest who appears only for a moment in the films’ combined four hours of runtime. Che has a tendency to observe Guevara and his movement from a distance, almost clinically, and does not ever focus on his inner thoughts or feelings. Soderbergh never explores who he is behind the mask of a revolutionary.
Unsane from 2018 is the consummate example of how far Soderbergh will experiment with his film style. The psychological thriller is filmed entirely on an iPhone 7 Plus, and stars Claire Foy as Sawyer Valentini, a woman who is involuntarily institutionalized after being traumatized by a stalker. Damon has yet another small cameo and gives a downplayed performance as he calmly explains what Sawyer will have to do now that she is being stalked. While Unsane can feel like a student film in terms of how small the scope and sets are, it’s still a gripping drama.
Soderbergh did not slow down during the COVID pandemic, but his film release schedules were still affected by the shutdowns, and No Sudden Move did not screen in theaters. Damon appears in an uncredited but significant role as Mike Lowen, an automobile executive trying to hide the existence of a catalytic converter, so his company will not have to implement pollution control. The crime thriller was one of HBO Max’s best 2021 movies, and was critically acclaimed with a 92% on Rotten Tomatoes thanks in part due to some beautiful signature Soderbergh cinematography and a resonant environmental and political message.
Damon stars in 2009’s The Informant!, a biopic, dark comedy about Mark Whitacre, a real-life whistle-blower. The tone of the film doesn’t always quite know how dark it should get. Whitacre turns out to be as bad as the men he’s informing on, if not worse. While The Informant! has plenty of goofball moments like Whitacre staring into a plant trying to find a camera, and Damon gives a great performance as a bumbling version of his Talented Mr. Ripley character, this is all overshadowed by the fact that Mark is having a very real mental breakdown on-screen, and it is not as funny as Soderbergh thinks it is.
Ocean’s Twelve is the most divisive of Soderbergh’s Ocean’s trilogy. The original film was a love letter to Las Vegas and the Rat Pack, but the sequel trades poker and slots for a European romp that sometimes gets a little too silly even for a franchise known for off-the-wall heists and antics. Despite the film’s winking quality, the cast is having so much fun together that it’s hard not to get sucked into Ocean’s Twelve and its illogical heist. Soderbergh’s emphasis on natural light is the perfect way to depict Lake Como, and it ends up being one of the most beautiful movies in his filmography.
Soderbergh’s film is self-aware in the best way and though the stakes are high for the gang to steal a Faberge egg, there is never a real feeling of danger. Damon receives a much larger role compared to the previous film. This is one of Ocean’s Twelve many meta moments, as his character, Linus Caldwell, hilariously expresses wanting to be a bigger part of the heist this time to Brad Pitt’s eternally snacking Rusty. The easygoing nature of the film makes Damon all the more fun to watch as he desperately tries to make a name for himself and take the theft seriously while everyone else rolls their eyes.
Soderbergh’s 2013 HBO film, Behind the Candelabra, stars Michael Douglas as the famous pianist, Liberace, and Matt Damon as his younger lover, Scott Thorson. Douglas manages to depict an accurate version of the unique star without dipping into parody while Damon plays Thorson with a young man’s anger and naivety that is both heartbreaking and haunting. Douglas and Damon chew the scenery, but the straight actors don’t reduce these LGBTQ+ roles to embarrassing tropes, which is always a risk with these casting choices. It’s a raw performance from Damon, and it’s him at his most exposed as an actor.
Behind the Candelabra is one of Damon and Soderbergh’s more critically acclaimed collaborations, Damon was nominated for Emmy, SAG, and Golden Globe awards while Soderbergh won a DAG for Outstanding Direction. Soderbergh’s depiction of Liberace shows him to be a multi-talented but massively needy man who needs attention. Liberace should be detestable by the way he treats Scott, and Douglas’ performance pushes the audience to be suspicious of the character, but Soderbergh imbues the film with sympathy and sensitivity. Liberace may be selfish and vain, but there’s no denying he’s one of a kind.
The final movie of the Ocean’s trilogy, Ocean’s Thirteen brings the crew back to Las Vegas. Soderbergh pulls out all the stops, including returning franchise villains Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia) and François Toulour (Vincent Cassel), along with a new antagonist, Willy Bank (Al Pacino). Whereas the previous films in the series were jobs for money, the heist in Ocean’s Thirteen is for revenge. Soderbergh goes to lengths to show how detestable a character Bank is, and watching him get his comeuppance is incredibly satisfying. The scene on the casino floor of the games being cheated simultaneously visually shows exactly how badly Bank loses.
As a job rooted in honor, Ocean’s Thirteen avoids the usual problems with the Ocean’s heists in that they’re more trouble than their worth, and gives a good reason for being theatrical. Damon still plays Linus with a stuttering anxiousness, but he’s also much more confident about his limitations and no longer feels like a character with something to prove. Despite the end-of-era feeling of the film, Soderbergh still captures the movie in wide angles and long takes that show off the city’s beauty. This is an Ocean’s film that is working on every level and only misses out on being the best because of the originality of the first.
Soderbergh’s crossing, parallel storylines and detached film style have never fit his films better than in the remarkably prescient movie, Contagion. In the film, a global pandemic threatens the world and multiple story arcs are traced as civilians try to stay alive and scientists try to find a cure. Damon plays Mitch Emhoff, a family man whose wife succumbs early to the virus. Damon gives one of his best performances in the hospital scene as Mitch struggles to understand that his wife is dead, flicking away the doctor’s words like they are an annoying fly and continuing to ask when he can speak to his wife.
Cliff Martinez provides a pounding electronic score that provides all the sound the viewer needs as they watch people grow steadily sicker. Contagion gets it extraordinarily right compared to COVID-19 and what would happen in society. The film’s storylines rarely intersect, and Soderbergh cuts across them to show just where humanity is in the pandemic cycle. This style is put to chilling effect as he pursues one storyline as if it’s the main plot only for it to end abruptly with a character’s death. The tension ratchets up the longer the sequences go.
Ocean’s Eleven is the critical favorite of the Ocean trilogy. It is a famous property and Soderbergh’s announcement that he was here to stay after the success of Traffic and Erin Brockovich. The movie is filled with Soderbergh signatures including the multi-narrative, hyperlink cinema style where multiple characters’ storylines intersect and are backtracked to show the same scene from another point of view. It’s a difficult dance and the payoff of the unusual structure is makes Ocean’s Eleven one of the best heist movies.
Damon plays Linus Caldwell for the first time here, starring alongside Pitt, George Clooney, and Julia Roberts. Unlike in subsequent Ocean’s films, Linus’ screen time is limited. While Damon’s career now encompasses a universe of cinema, and he’s a major Hollywood star, in 2001 his star power was still lagging behind many in the A-list ensemble cast. Matt Damon makes dure with the scenes he has, presenting an innocent but tedious thief. Ocean’s Eleven is gorgeously shot, and the Steven Soderbergh film rewards rewatches as more details and foreshadowed scenes reveal themselves.
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