Does anyone today make movies as effortlessly cool as Steven Soderbergh?
It’s a different question, mind you, than to ask if anyone today were making cooler movies than Steven Soderbergh. One person’s twisty crime caper could be another’s naptime. But when Don Cheadle, his Marvel armor exchanged for a lower-rung mobster’s gruff swagger, strides at dawn through a 1950s Detroit in decline backed by a suspenseful-sexy score as carnivalesque font teases an infinitely delectable cast to open “No Sudden Move”, you sit a little straighter. You look a little closer. You focus your attention a little tighter so minor details suddenly sound louder—footfalls seem heavier, voices rumble in a deeper tenor.
And you start to ask questions. Who is this guy? What’s his relationship to the world around him, and to this Brendan Fraser character hiring him for a so-called “babysitting” job? What’s the deal with this harmless family whose lives Cheadle (along with fellow for-hire criminals played by Benicio Del Toro and Kieran Culkin) busts into with a gun in one hand and the calm cool of experience in the other? If there’s one thing Soderbergh’s recent movies have proved, it’s that the coolness of his filmmaking – that sleek editing; that crisp, often gorgeous cinematography focusing on faces and expressions; those fluid storytelling rhythms defying the algorithmic schematics defining modern Hollywood – is baiting us into a movie-watching experience that will grow far beyond what we’re likely expecting, all while keeping the panache intact. “I think you have ulterior motives,” one character says early on, “but I find that sexy.” It’s practically Soderbergh’s MO.
“No Sudden Move,” the director’s best work since “High Flying Bird” and also a spiritual successor of sorts to it, released on HBO Max this weekend. It isn’t, however, simultaneously arriving in theaters as with other recent Warner Bros. films—and that’s a sad thing. Because while this is an ostensibly small-scale, dialogue-driven affair unfolding in cramped cars, offices and suburban homes, you realize it would help to gaze upon the biggest possible canvas while the strategies and themes filling Ed Solomon’s screenplay continuously tangle with each other. Most of this darkly funny, slightly unwieldy and entirely entertaining film’s first half is spent mining the difference between control and chaos, instinct and impulse, and we come to think that’s as expansive as it will ultimately be. Its second hour, then, makes fools out of us for thinking such things as Soderbergh and Solomon sift their noirish sandbox to reveal a chessboard underneath.
It’s a sly thing they’ve done here, merging the genre-inflected crackling of “Ocean’s 11” with a curiosity about worldly institutions that has defined Soderbergh’s career elsewhere in all the deft and intricate ways that the director’s “The Laundromat” struggled to. The scope of “No Sudden Move” seems to grow in real-time as we observe trench coat-wearing minutemen maneuvering around generals to come face to face with emperors, the movie fashioning itself as a parable about American power dynamics in which plans go up in flames while prevailing systems of wealth and means nonetheless continue to do what they do best: Prevail.
This is to say, “No Sudden Move” comes to be a bit of a complex thriller. But before all that, it’s a straightforward one, mostly focusing on two men (well, three, briefly) who have only heard of each other through the bullet-riddled grapevine, and on a mysterious document they’ve been hired to retrieve. Its contents are as unknown to them as they are to us. These two professionals – Curt Goynes, played by Cheadle, and Ronald Russo, played by Del Toro – don’t ask many questions. And we know they’ve done this plenty of times before, based on how casual they’re affording themselves to be while keeping a close eye on a made-for-TV-commercials family as its patriarch, a nervous-as-hell David Harbour, goes with Curt and Ronald’s third partner to retrieve what they came to get. Back at the home, a clean-cut Noah Jupe is acting more confrontational toward the home invaders rather than curdling to their demands.
These foundational story beats have an allure to them, in that we just know it’s only a matter of time for mistrust or a bit of unexpected daring to set the whole “job” ablaze. It’s a movie, after all. But while “No Sudden Move” makes explosive good on that anticipation, it knows not to entirely let us in on bigger schemes. By the time Curt and Ronald find themselves adapting to bloody and bizarre new conditions, we’ve already felt as if we were trespassing into a larger world of operators and conspirators. And we sink our loyalties into the characters, because their new discoveries will be our new discoveries.
On the one hand, these are simple cinematic pleasures. On the other hand – the one maneuvered by Soderbergh – simple tends to be divine. And while “No Sudden Move” may represent a throwback of movie-watching delights, it’s funny to consider that in the face of Soderbergh’s reputation for pushing the medium forward. Here that applies to Curt, Ronald and an almost overwhelmingly expansive cast of characters (suggestion: don’t look them up beforehand) for whom double-crosses seem as natural as morning cups of coffee. The movie is propelled by our need for them all to simply keep moving and strategizing, lest any of the other players catch up to them.
If Soderbergh’s direction is the fuel to his latest vehicle for considerations about capitalism and the widely excellent performances his paint job, then the chassis is history itself. As Vox’s Alissa Wilkinson has detailed, “No Sudden Move” is set against an impending crossroads for American’s automakers and money-minded city-shapers. Hints of that context are sprinkled throughout before taking up increasingly larger space in the narrative’s surface, but “No Sudden Move” never falls for thinking it must explain the particulars of history.
By that omission it accomplishes something grander: It turns the staggering breadth of reality into its own story device, expanding the horizons of this plot’s game ever further toward where power-brokers lurk. Don’t be surprised if you’re a bit disoriented by where Curt and Ronald find themselves, to say nothing of the delightful cameo that awaits us. Cool never seemed so cataclysmic.
"No Sudden Move" is rated R for language throughout, some violence and sexual references. It's now streaming on HBO Max.
Starring: Don Cheadle, Benicio Del Toro, David Harbour, Jon Hamm
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
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