The more you hate doctors, the more likely you are to love The Knick. Steven Soderbergh's superb medical drama takes place in New York's fictional Knickerbocker Hospital, back in 1900. These are the days when calling a doctor "sawbones" isn't a joke – surgeons just hack away and see what spurts blood. It takes a cold-blooded bastard to do this kind of dirty work. And Clive Owen, as the terrifying Dr. Thackery, is extremely suited for his job.
The Knick is basically Deadwood meets ER times Gangs of New York. Owen comes on like a medical Al Swearengen, mustache and all, except he's even scarier, since he's licensed to slice into anything that moves. He's a butcher who feels right at home in the bloody business of turn-of-the-century surgery. He has a habit of waking up in opium dens, and that's his most likable quality. He's an egomaniac, a racist, a cocaine addict and an all-around asshole whose only redeeming trait is his absolute fearlessness with the scalpel. But he doesn't romanticize the job. "It's a fool's errand," he says. A game that will be "forever rigged," because death always wins in the end.
It might seem weird to see Steven Soderbergh and Cinemax in the same sentence, but this odd couple are surprisingly well-matched. Soderbergh apparently meant it when he announced he was retiring from the movies. For Cinemax, new to the prestige-drama game, landing an art-house fave like Soderbergh is a real score. It's like what Katharine Hepburn said about Fred Astaire dancing with Ginger Rogers: "He gives her class and she gives him sex."
The Knick is refreshingly free of moralizers. The surgeons are preening divas, the administration money-grubbing slime. The Irish gangsters who drive the ambulances carry bats to fight off rival drivers as they cruise around looking for patients. Corrupt health inspectors keep people living in disease-breeding squalor. The closest thing this hospital has to a moral authority is the chain-smoking nun, who seems to be the only one around who can scare the ambulance drivers.
The gory operating scenes are an endurance test for sure. Soderbergh goes for gross-out shock tactics, leaving no limb unsevered and no organ unsquished. He does everything but show the doctors playing hacky sack with the patients' kidneys. When the action shifts to the opium den, it comes as a relief – at least here the naked flesh isn't gushing blood.
These aren't the deaths we're used to seeing on TV hospital dramas – there's no sentimental regard for the victims, who are just carved up in the name of science. The way Owen's Dr. Thackery sees it, a surgeon can't afford the luxury of compassion. When one doctor cracks under the pressure, Thackery understands what went wrong. "He stopped seeing the work, started seeing the death," Thackery says. "Once a man shifts his mind from the surgical field to the patient under the drape, it's only a matter of time."
Thackery doesn't plan to let that happen to him. The only way he can stay effective is by keeping any human sympathy out of his heart. This is the antihero Clive Owen was born to play – he's been casting around for a role this meaty ever since Children of Men, and he doesn't waste a scene. He knows his work takes a toll on his humanity. But The Knick also raises the possibility that he just likes being a coldblooded bastard for its own sake.