It’s hard to talk about Steven Soderbergh without mentioning how spirited and prolific his career has been. He can do it all: studio blockbusters (Ocean’s Eleven), slick capers (Out of Sight), prestige drama (sex, lies and videotape), and bargain basement indies (Bubble). He can get nominated for Best Director twice in the same year for making two completely different movies (Erin Brockovich, Traffic), and then twenty years later direct the Oscars themselves (a stylish venture that ultimately went South for reasons not worth rehashing here). His films often feel more like self-interested experiments than personal explorations. There is rarely a spiritual element to his films, no artistic vulnerability. I think this makes him incredibly unique, motivated purely by his skill and the innovations that the movies can provide.
No Sudden Move is a twisty noir tale, written by Ed Solomon with stopwatch-tight momentum and a fundamental understanding of the noir genre and how it relates to the world around it. Solomon’s story surrounds the auto industry in 1950’s Detroit. There’s a document in a manila envelope inside a green safe. This document seems to be the envy of every major player in the Detroit underworld, like the glowing suitcase mystery of Pulp Fiction or the falcon statue in The Maltese Falcon. Curt Goynes (Don Cheadle) is a gangster recently released from prison. All he wants in his life is to regain some land in Kansas City that he’d lost. Another score is no risk for him if it helps him accomplish his dream. So he wades blindly into a scheme which seems simple, but turns bloody. It also presents him with the opportunity for something much bigger.
He’s approached by Doug Jones (Brendan Fraser, recalling Orson Welles in Touch of Evil), a lumbering mob middle man who tells Curt about the job: babysit a family for a few hours while another man escorts the husband to retrieve the aforementioned document. That husband, Matt Wertz (David Harbour), is an accountant at a major automobile manufacturer. Since Matt is sleeping with the secretary of the man who created the document, Doug figures the screws can be turned. Curt is surprised to learn that he will have partners on the job. The first is Ronald Russo (Benicio Del Toro), another connected criminal in need of quick cash. The other is Charley (Kieran Culkin), a more slippery figure who happens to know all about Curt and Ronald’s checkered pasts. As the job proceeds, Curt begins to worry that it might be a set up, and the plan goes up in smoke.
No Sudden Move is at its heart an ensemble. Cheadle’s Goynes is the unquestioned center, but Soderbergh fills the film with an ever-growing cast of characters, each perfectly cast and performed. With every person introduced, the film hops around with its choppy, choose-your-own-adventure momentum, filling in whole new worlds within minute sequences executed precisely, leaving no character cheapened and no storyline uncooked. There are two crime bosses (Ray Liotta, Bill Duke), one smarmy detective (Jon Hamm), one beleaguered wife (Amy Seimetz), one scorned lover (Frankie Shaw) and a pitch-perfect femme fatale (Julia Fox). All these people (among others) give more to No Sudden Move than you’ll initially expect, and Solomon’s script depends on the audience’s underestimation.
Acting as his own editor and cinematographer, Soderbergh puts himself forthright as the sole authority on this film’s visuals. His previous film, Let Them All Talk, was a performance-led drama where Soderbergh seemed to have very little interest in the filmmaking (you could often see his camera reflected in star Meryl Streep’s glasses). That’s not the case in No Sudden Move, which both recalls the chic of Ocean’s 11 and Out of Sight, while experimenting with wide angle lenses giving many shots a bulging, fisheye look. Soderbergh is not someone who often ties his visual style into a narrative function (Traffic‘s color-coding aside), and that’s more or less the case here, but he does show his talent for using the camera and brisk editing to build suspense throughout the film’s many tense sequences.
As the many strands within the plot begin to unravel, No Sudden Move reveals itself to have real interest in how the plights of yesterday fold into the problems of today. Curt and Ronald both have reasons to fear for their lives, but they also learn quickly they are small potatoes in the broader world of social crime. The men looking to kill them have their own bigger bosses, and it’s the men with the most legitimate appearances who find themselves capable of the worst horrors. Soderbergh doesn’t get bogged down in macro analysis but the script doesn’t bury its head in the sand either. Naiveté and trust are luxuries most characters in No Sudden Move can’t afford, and the film is quick to relate that fact to the world at large.
Directed by Steven Soderbergh