Matt Damon in character study!

Steven Soderbergh’s latest film, The Informant!, comes to us sooner than his two previous films (or is it a single two-part movie?), his Che Guevara biopic, which will be released later this year.

The vagaries of movie distribution doubtless have a lot to do with this, but the result is that committed cinephiles can compare two (or, again, is it three?) works by one of the United States’s leading filmmakers more or less simultaneously.

Not that that will necessarily lessen one’s confusion.
Soderbergh is a chameleon of a director, who deliberately does a lot of different things—and not just along the lines of his celebrated statement that he makes one movie for the suits, then one for himself. In the case of Che, at least, he sneaked in two. Or does the existence of The Informant! make that three? Perhaps he will have to make Oceans 14, 15 and 16 at a trot to make up for these excursions into less obviously commercial cinema.

At any rate, The Infomant! is a more commercial prospect than Che—slightly. It tells the somewhat true story of Mark Whitacre, a biologist and manager working at a huge company producing food additives, mostly forms of corn syrup, which tends to get added to just about everything as a substitute for sugar. That the companies making such substances are also involved in forms of price-fixing and other collusion means, as Whitacre puts it, that every American has been the victim of corporate fraud before he or she has finished eating breakfast.

For reasons of his own, Whitacre decides to blow the whistle on his crooked employers and colleagues. He informs the FBI and becomes a key informant on the subject—hence the title. The fact that this story is not exactly played straight probably accounts for the exclamation mark in the title, though at first one sees it as entirely supererogatory, as in a news poster for the Daily Sun. Aliens ate my gogo! Politicians lie to the nation! Story of corporate whistleblower not as simple as it seems!

Okay, that last one isn’t a Sun poster. Obviously. For the Whitacre saga does not quite proceed as one might expect from the early stages of the movie, which is a good thing. It also becomes clear that The Informant! is not so much a tale of corporate derring-do as a detailed character study of a person who is more complicated than he at first appears.

Again, a good thing. As Whitacre, Matt Damon does as decent a job as he is able of portraying this man, with all his detailed failings. Damon’s appearance here is a long way from that of the lean, mean killing machine that was Jason Bourne. He’s got spectacles, a moustache and a truly character-defining hair-do. He also did the serious-method-actor thing (Oscar, are you paying attention?) and gained nearly 14kg for the role.

Yet do such appurtenances a character make? The Informant! may be a character study, but I, for one, still felt rather mystified by Whit-acre by the end of the film. Perhaps that’s par for the course; after all, this isn’t a 19th-century novel. In the postmodern world, we are more suspicious of what makes a literary or cinematic character because so many of the effects that produced character in classic realism are now seen as mere conventions. And Soderbergh’s take on character is certainly more nuanced and self-aware than the obviously and boringly formulaic traits that delineate the flat characters of most mainstream Hollywood cinema.

The Informant! deepens the character of Whitacre by doing what only written fiction traditionally can do, which is to get inside a character’s head. Thus the film’s intermittent voice-over—not the voice of a narrator telling us the story but a series of excerpts from Whitacre’s internal monologue. This is both amusing (The Informant! is often very funny) and enlightening, in some ways, about Whitacre. It makes him more complex, though not necessarily more comprehensible. But even if he were in fact narrating his story as such, in the classic retrospective mode of the knowing storyteller, we’d have to be careful because he’s obviously an unreliable narrator.

Is Soderbergh, too, an unreliable narrator? Or is he, at some deeper (or higher) level, the calmly omniscient observer, simply detailing the unreliabilities of his characters? He feels to me like the latter, rather detached from the stories he tells and the people who inhabit them. This is an attitude at odds with the emotional involvement that mainstream cinema tries to engender, where the filmmaker’s alleged emotional investment in the characters and story should be echoed by the viewer’s. Soderbergh’s detachment makes his films frequently very interesting, but that’s a cerebral response, and the viewer’s reaction will depend on how much of an emotional experience you want from a movie.

Other elements employed by Soderbergh in The Informant! undercut its emotional punch—or complicate its attitude to its own subject matter, if you prefer. Veteran composer Marvin Hamlisch’s score often comments wittily and a little satirically on the action, while the cinematography also indicates a not-entirely-straightforward approach to this particular narrative. Soderbergh is his own cinematographer (using the new digital Red One camera), and his style in The Informant! is something like an attempt to make the film look like a home movie.

At least, I think it is. Interiors are frequently underlit, with the yellowy-brown tint that results from that, and Soderbergh even shoots into the light—that is, with a window or other light source, unveiled, glaring in the background. This puts some flare on the image, and is traditionally to be avoided by a good cameraman. Is Soderbergh just pushing the cinematographic envelope here, or is he using this style to say something about the story? Is the light of truth always just outside the room, flaring into our eyes but making the foreground harder to see?

As you can deduce, The Informant! raises more questions than it answers. Instead of being reassuring, it keeps tickling our responses. Look! Laugh! Cry! No? Ponder! Be tickled!

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week. Read more from Shaun de Waal

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