Were the advertising campaign to be believed Steven Soderbergh’s latest tale of conflicted individuals and the lives that haunt them appears to be a change of direction for the prolific filmmaker: could this really be a sex comedy aimed at gangs of whooping young women? Had the director of Traffic and Che really produced a Burlesque-esque camp-fest? We’re pleased to report that this most certainly is not the case, with Magic Mike actually making for an apt companion to his earlier The Girlfriend Experience, and the perfect comparison piece to this years Haywire

Telling the tale of the titular Mike (Channing Tatum), Soderbergh’s movie explores the familiar ideas of identity and place, alongside the backdrop of a post-recession America. Mike is a stripper, but he dreams of one day running his own business producing one-of-a- kind, bespoke furniture. Plot is thin: it essentially amounts to three months in the life of Mike and his relationship with a protege of sorts, The Kid (Alex Pettyfer) and the sister of The Kid, Brooke (Cody Horn). 

While slight in plot, the real joy comes from the construction of the work. A fractured, temporally unforgiving edit and saturated visuals make for an experience far beyond the gloss and faux-glamour one might associate with the sort of activity at the centre of the film. In a manner not dissimilar to how Darren Aronofsky pulled back the curtain in The Wrestler, Soderbergh presents the behind the scenes reality of the life of a male stripper. There’s some fascinating meta-musing on entertainment in here too – Soderbergh’s film is wrapped under layers of subtext and commentary: a one-time child star portrays one of the leads, a former professional wrestler is a backing dancer while Elvis Presley’s granddaughter plays a love interest.

There are echoes of Bresson in Soderbergh’s protagonist, which especially come to the fore when placed along the backdrop of the relationship between the character and the females around him. Joanna represents the unsustainabil nature of the life he leads, while Brooke is a representation of the life he could lead, were it not for the glaring obstacles in the way. Paul Schrader’s similarly Bressonian-riffing American Gigolo tackled similar territory, albeit in a more formalistic manner. There are shades of the western in there too, thanks to the path with which the plotline involving Alex Pettyfer’s appropriately named “The Kid” goes off on, making like a compact and unfinished treaty on the drug episode in the latter half of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights

While the film might be named for Channing Tatum’s eponymous protagonist, the films backbone is very much that of Matthew McConaughey. Amusing attached to bongos in several scenes, and the owner of the world’s most narcissistic painting, McConaughey is the worst case “what if?” scenario that faces any young man about to embark on the life of professional. His sleazy final dance, the result of 95 minutes of  appears to age from one scene to the next, with the figure ultimately resembling the snake that hangs around his neck in the aforementioned painting. Soderbergh’s film is more cautionary tale than it is unabashed celebration, and it’s a sincerely affecting one at that.