Soderbergh’s Revisionist Noir takes a grim, humorous look at crime and capitalism
It can be argued that Steven Soderbergh is the David Bowie, or more accurately the Scott Walker, of directors. Much like these musical geniuses, he’s not interested in financial reward or notoriety, as much as in subversion of genres, stretching the medium and going to extremes never to be repeated. Sometimes he gets you carried away, but other times you shake your head in confusion at his choices. This is the reaction of a real artist.
With Sex, lies and video the director essentially spawned the ’90s indie scene, and he’s continuously defied expectations with his surreal films (The Girlfriend Experience), revered Oscar fare (Erin Brockovich, Circulation), box office hits (the Ocean eleven series, Magic mike) and inimitable takes on the detective film (Out of sight, the lime). The last of Soderbergh, No sudden movement (which just released on HBO Max on July 1), draws inspiration from the latter category by diving so deep into darkness that you almost drown in its current. Fortunately, we can catch our breath as it also implements dark humor, social commentary, and a cast of characters so goofy and desperate that you can’t help but invest in the journey.
Located in the Strait of the 1950s, you don’t waste time immersing yourself in a shattered capitalist society where urban criminals rub shoulders with Ozzie and Harriet-some families working for the automotive industry. The enigmatic Don Cheadle plays Curt, who has just been released from prison and is hired for a shady job with two other criminals – Ronald (Benicio Del Toro) and an irritable Charley (a hilarious Kieran Culkin). Their recruiter, Joe (Brendan Fraser), orders them to take an accountant, Matt (David Harbor) and his family hostage, so they can steal a top secret file from his office. It turns out that kidnapping a family is just a way for Curt and Ronald to squeeze more money from other corrupt businessmen.
Soon these low-level criminals fall headlong into a den of crooked auto executives, unfaithful spouses, institutional racism and mafia paybacks. The dossier itself was just a MacGuffin, interweaving a group of characters including a dubious detective (Jon Hamm), beautiful and ambitious ladies (Julie Fox, Frankie Shaw) and ruthless crime bosses (Ray Liotta, Bill Duke). Like many classic dark tales, the story cares less about plausibility or clarity, as that is the rhythmic cadence of its tale. If black is a swing dance of ego and hidden motivations, No sudden movement looks like a frenzied ballroom filled with greedy sociopaths. Yet beneath the comedic frenzy there is a commentary on this country’s privileged puppeteers.
Soderbergh keeps the pace at breakneck speed with a relaxed and confident style. Work from a screenplay by Ed Solomon (Men in black) and powered by a jazz-inspired score by David Holmes, he jumps from character to character without crippling his audience and that’s a feat only a director of his caliber could accomplish. It even uses older camera lenses to capture the era. Each scene is awash in thick grays and greens, making the 1950s seem like a darker time than is usually depicted. Unfortunately, he takes this experimentation a bit too far by implementing a fisheye perspective in too many scenes, an unnecessary camera trick that belittles cinematography and distracts audiences.
Plus, the story is so convoluted and complex that it sometimes feels like an albatross threatening to sink the whole movie. Soderbergh’s masterful balance of dark humor and drama, not to mention some great performances, at least helps the narrative overcome these shortcomings. There is nothing particularly deep in No sudden movement but it reminds you that the crime is pretty ugly on both sides of the tracks, but at least it’s more honest at street level.