The Knick premieres tonight August 8th at 10 pm EST on Cinemax and follows Dr. John Thackery (Clive Owen), the pretentious, brilliant, drug-addicted head of surgery at New York’s Knickerbocker Hospital, as he and the rest of the staff (surgeons, nurses, and administration) navigate the challenges of healthcare in the early 1900’s. As the tagline says “Modern Medicine Had to Start Somewhere”.
It’ll be interesting to see how modern television critics respond to The Knick, Steven Soderbergh’s triumphant ten-hour return to the tube. Not easily lending itself to the Recap Industrial Complex that drives hits to its respective cogs, The Knick is a work which demands you deconstruct it from a place of mordant post-formalism and stagnancy. Yes, there is a plot that drives forward, but the constantly chameleonic director is more content with noticing how Dr. John W. Thackery (Clive Owen, reminding us all what a talent he is when challenged) remains a stoic, dilated disciple of science in the face of unending disease and death. Taking more cues from the equally clinical David Cronenberg and cribbing from the digitally anachronistic aesthetics of Michael Mann (whose Public Enemies feels like an improved upon touchstone), the retired auteur proves yet again that he’s a better artist than almost all of us, even when saddled to his rocking chair.
From the opening shot, the audience knows they’re firmly imbedded inside of a Soderbergh joint, as we stare out from Dr. Thacker’s hangover-hazed eyes at his white street kickers. A legend appears — 1900 — as we gain our bearings and move out to the dirty, shit-smelling street, hailing a horse-drawn cab so that we can clear our mind before headed into surgery. Trickling in like a digital lightning bolt thrown from grey heaven comes Cliff Martinez’s score, soundtracking the ride over not too unlike how he did Ryan Gosling’s constant cruising in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive. It’s an arresting intro and doubly decadent prolegomenon to place. Soderbergh makes it abundantly clear that The Knick is going to be about as far from a stuffy history lesson as one can get, capturing Thacker’s shooting of cocaine between his toes as a means to get his mind right before digging into the belly of a pregnant woman.
The backwards nature of turn-of-the-century medicine lends the production (which was penned by Jack Amiel and Michael Begler) a distinct air of body horror, as the camera lingers on wounds and the bloody ins and outs of primitive surgery. Meanwhile, Soderbergh keeps the frame mobile and wide as it navigates the streets and sits in on boardroom meetings between Thackery and the Lower Manhattan Knickerbocker Hospital’s progress-minded patron, Cornelia Robertson (Juliet Rylance). Those expecting a more classical approach (think Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part II or Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time In America) to representing early New York life are going to be sorely disappointed, as Soderbergh is keen on keeping his serial as experimental cinematically as the men in white robes he’s so taken with are medically.
Editing has always been an essential part of Soderbergh’s filmic schematic, and here the cuts continue to feel jagged yet fluid. From the very beginning of his career, the director made a name for himself effortlessly juggling multiple characters, leading to the pinnacle of his filmography, 2000’s Best Director-winning condensation of the 315-minute Channel 4 miniseries Traffik. This knack for variegated storytelling pays off in spades with The Knick, as Soderbergh jumps from acid-tongued nuns to West Virginian nurses, all struggling with the repressive condescension of the time’s men. Though a team of editors are credited to splicing the series together, its movements (much like the filter-heavy “Peter Andrews” cinematography) belong wholly to the man behind the camera.
Much like David Milch would often focus on the struggles of women and African-Americans in a antediluvian, Anglo-dominated society with Deadwood, much of The Knick revolves around the tempestuous bond forged between Thackery and his forced-upon second in command, Dr. Algernon Edwards (André Holland), a black, Harvard-educated doctor.“I am certainly not interested in an integrated hospital staff,” Thackery says to Edwards, adding, “I’m sure there are many Negro infirmaries that will benefit from your talents.” But Edwards sees the merit in studying under this granite wall of a man, even if he’s as open minded racially as Al Swearengen on a good day.
Just as Martin Scorsese famously covered his hometown with swaths of sleaze, scoundrels and public officials just as corrupt as the Gangs who run the burgeoning five boroughs, Soderbergh peppers a wealth of impropriety into his vision of 1900 Manhattan. Immigrants are exploited. Emergency carts are robbed of their magically intoxicating elixirs. Men are beaten and stabbed just as they turn the wrong corner. Concurrently, the hospital’s slippery administrator, Herman Barrow (Jeremy Bobb), agrees with Thackery’s every word but can’t afford to pique Cornelia or her powerful father, a captain of industry who lets her act as his proxy during board meetings. So while the billysticks reign supreme in the streets, Thackery finds his funding being fiddled with behind the scenes by bureaucracy, hell-bent on appearing cosmopolitan as war is waged by ruffians outside the hospital’s walls.
They say that you’re most likely to get a show greenlit if it revolves around cops, lawyers or doctors, but credit has to be paid to Cinemax for taking a risk on Soderbergh’s daring, slow-burn vision. This isn’t generic tripe like House, M.D. or Grey’s Anatomy, but rather a character piece that is as fascinating as it is fascinated by the science Thackery studies. There seems to be no limit to what Soderbergh is capable of, and if The Knick is the result of the director becoming disenfranchised with the business of filmmaking, I wait with bated breath to see what happens when he loses interest in the world of television. The Knick is top notch and yet another example (along with HBO’s True Detective) of how the medium is evolving with an auteur-driven design.