“Crazy times. The world these days. I mean, it bums me out, to be honest.”
Steven Soderbergh loves Panic Room. According to his yearly media logs, he’s watched it 14 times since 2009 (2015 being the only year in that time he didn’t watch it) and called it his favorite David Fincher movie for a New York Times feature on Fincher. It’s not a common choice because not many would be willing to go with the unabashedly populist b-thriller over more obviously bravura achievements like Zodiac or The Social Network, but that’s Soderbergh for you. He’s made dense, patient, four-and-a-half-hour-long biopics about revolutionaries and he’s made movies where Julia Roberts saves the day and insults people’s shoes, he likes doing the latter better. He aspires to the popcorn excellence of Panic Room, and now he’s finally tried his hand at it with Kimi, another (mostly) one-location thriller that’s even written by Panic Room scribe David Koepp. He may not be able to match Fincher’s total control over the image (in that same Times feature, he speaks to needing to go outside and take a breath after just watching Fincher’s meticulous color-correction notes during Panic Room‘s postproduction), but he’s just as good a genre craftsman, as Kimi is happy to remind us.
Soderbergh is, above all else, a director who loves to watch people do their jobs. And Angela Childs (Zoe Kravitz) has maybe the most interesting job of any Soderbergh protagonist since “baby doll factory worker”. She’s a data analyst for a tech company whose signature product is an Alexa clone called KIMI. Like any artificial intelligence, KIMI’s bound to make mistakes from time to time; it doesn’t understand that the Southern expression for paper towels is “kitchen paper”, or that someone asking for “Me!” by Taylor Swift is asking for a song and not a Taylor Swift playlist “for me.” This is where Angela comes in. She goes through the streams where KIMI made an error and corrects that error with code. This means that she has access to private audio from people who most likely didn’t knowingly consent to share that audio, but that doesn’t bother her much. She’s more concerned by her own crippling agoraphobia, possibly brought on by a past trauma but definitely made much worse by the pandemic. She works out of her Seattle loft and can’t even muster up the courage to go across the street to a food truck. She is in a very delicate headspace already when she listens to an audio file of loud music masking what sounds like a woman’s screams, possibly a sexual assault. She reports this to her manager (Andy Daly) who’s enraged she brought it up in the first place. Eventually, she becomes so convinced it’s a murder that she has no choice but to leave her apartment and find somebody who can report it to the authorities. She better run.
Reading the plot makes obvious the debt that Kimi owes to fellow sound-based paranoia thrillers The Conversation and Blow Out, and expectedly Soderbergh has a blast emulating those movies’ careful process filmmaking (it’s a wonder there hasn’t been a digital-age version of those stories until now, advances in technology mean whole new ways to film knobs being turned and troublesome sounds being isolated). There’s also the obvious Rear Window influence, made even more literal by a subplot involving a neighbor with binoculars (Devin Ratray). But it would be too easy to just rehash the classics, so by the third act Soderbergh, as he did before in Side Effects, steers it into the kind of studio potboiler that was all over the 90s but has been eradicated from theaters since. It’s been too long since major studios were making movies with hitmen threatening people over flash drives, or villainous henchmen whose defining features are that one is short and irritated and the other is tall and dumb (it starts as original-recipe The Conversation and ends as fellow Conversation riff Enemy of the State). When those movies were king in Hollywood, Soderbergh was busy torpedoing his own Hollywood career with The Underneath, whose climax of Talking Killer monologues and fights over weapons tossed on the floor is quite similar to Kimi‘s (the dreamy sequence of Angela kidnapped in a van is a direct lift). There the conventionality of the ending was a disappointment relative to the delirious style of the rest, but Soderbergh’s a better genre filmmaker now than he was then, treating the most cliched and over-the-top moments with as much respect and artistry as the quieter, more “respectable” moments. He doesn’t condescend to the pleasures of hearing “Sabotage” or watching people get fucked up with a nail gun. Let’s think back to the Panic Room influence, that’s an astounding craftsman giving you the best meat-and-potatoes thriller you could wish for. Kimi is maybe not quite that good, but it’s damn close.
David Koepp is a veteran of the Hollywood system that pumped out movies like this every month and he writes like it, crafting a sturdy, unpretentious genre script with some good laughs but no winking. Koepp has fallen out of fashion in the last decade because he has no place in Hollywood anymore and his track record is mixed enough that some may give credit for his successes to the directors (I think the case could be made that Mortdecai singlehandedly killed any chance of him getting taken seriously as a co-auteur on his movies). But the man knows the fundamentals of good pop screenwriting better than just about anyone: how to elegantly layer in set-ups and pay-offs without being too obvious or too satisfied with his own cleverness, how to incorporate comedy into tense sequences without deflating the suspense, and most of all how to tailor a line to get the maximum reaction from an audience (Andy Daly’s scene in particular ends with a really terrific stinger). His job is to make it not matter that you’ve probably seen all his tricks before (whether in his or other movies), and here he succeeds.
The throwback nature of Kimi works to undercut any notion that this is a movie about How We Live Today. Mercifully, this is not a movie about the pandemic. It’s rather a movie that sees the dramatic and thematic possibilities of the pandemic and uses them in service of a story that can stand on its own. On the simplest level, it is a good dramatic tool for your movie about someone who doesn’t want to leave their apartment to incorporate an event that makes it potentially dangerous for anybody to go outside in the company of other people. Soderbergh’s handling of the exterior scenes is a masterful visualization of everyday COVID anxiety without ever underlining that, he doesn’t resort to panicked close-ups of the various unmasked extras but you can see they’re unmasked and fill in the blanks from there. Going deeper, the lessons taken from COVID about how little corporations care about human life fit snugly with Soderbergh’s ongoing thesis of “capitalism will eat you alive” and with this specific movie’s plot catalyst, a contract killing motivated by IPO. But the contemporary relevance always serves the genre plot rather than the genre plot only operating as a delivery system for the messaging. A scene where Angela is abducted from a protest against anti-homeless legislature externalizes the movie’s themes of displacement and the eradication of “private” spaces, but in the moment it’s about nothing except how scary it is to see someone abducted in broad daylight in front of a mob of people. Even the detail of the protestors working to free Angela, which could easily be cornball #RESIST bullshit, is affecting because it struggles to make itself known amidst the scene’s chaos, it’s a last-ditch assertion of humanity in a sea of evil.
Kimi‘s most obvious companion piece in the Soderbergh oeuvre is Unsane, his previous study of women’s lives destroyed and scrutinized by the dual forces of institutional misogyny and readily-available digital technology. A scene in Kimi involving an HR manager played by Rita Wilson could fit right into Unsane, blandly reassuring platitudes that barely mask the speaker’s disregard for human life (Soderbergh’s career-long fascination with watching people bend and distort language has given him a healthy contempt for corpospeak, language stripped of all meaning and style). Unsane is that scene for 98 minutes, easily the bleakest movie in the Soderbergh oeuvre and sometimes almost unwatchably nasty. But Kimi ends up being relatively optimistic by the end, even as it’s careful to balance that out with justified cynicism (even the happiest ending here won’t take out the impenetrably large system that made it happen in the first place). Next to No Sudden Move‘s lack of victories beyond the simple fact of not dying, this is positively cheery, believing that the same invasive technology installed in all our homes might be used to hold the scumbags who put the technology there accountable. It’s not quite the inspiring pro-digital message of High Flying Bird but more importantly it keeps this from becoming merely techphobic, which it has every expectation of being. People say Soderbergh loves his digital toys more than people, but this clarifies that he loves those toys specifically for what they can do for people.
Soderbergh has always used his movies as testing grounds for new visual ideas and styles, but only recently has that tendency started making a lot of people mad (I’m sure there were people mad about his initial switch to digital but those people are too stupid to bother worrying about). Shooting two movies on iPhones really seems to have made people distrust his visual instincts (even though both those movies look good and Unsane in particular looks amazing), especially after his subsequent experiment with fish-eye lenses in No Sudden Move. Kimi seems at first like it’ll finally appease those whiners. The first half set entirely in Angela’s apartment is Soderbergh as stylistically straightforward as he’s ever been, favoring classicism and clarity of information and setting (he’ll get a close-up shot of a kombucha bottle dangling precariously on a counter just so a later jump scare with the bottle breaking doesn’t come out of nowhere) over flash. Even the typically excellent Cliff Martinez score is notably toned down from his past work with Soderbergh, foregrounding Bernard Herrmann strings and letting Martinez’s usual electronics exist as an accent rather than the whole thing. But you can never keep a good Soderbergh down, and his restraint gives way to some of the most disorienting style of his career once Angela ventures outside. What was once covered in elegant dolly shots is then covered by a handheld, see-sawing camera (a technique Soderbergh first used to film Lucas Hedges and Gemma Chan boogieing down in Let Them All Talk), like the camera lost its axis simultaneous with Angela losing her bearings. It’s an exhilarating choice to start and only gets more so once it’s in service of an extended foot chase, where you have no idea how Angela will escape the bad guys or how exactly the camera will move when following Angela; there’s a particularly mind-melting shot involving a crash zoom where you don’t expect there to be one.
I recently watched a movie called Beckett, a great movie that’s only great because most of it is just John David Washington running and John David Washington has an extremely compelling run. I feel this way about Kimi and Zoe Kravitz’s running. The run she adopts to move outside her apartment, alarmingly fast even as she seems crouched in a fetal position (her head is crouched to a Charlie Brown degree), is so odd and captivating that the middle chunk devoted almost solely to it is mesmerizing. But I’d also attribute the movie’s greatness equally to the way Zoe Kravitz dries her hands after using hand sanitizer, which the COVID setting ensures happens a lot. The gesture is so specific (almost prayer-like) and so off-hand that it almost seems like Kravitz carried it over from her real life, even though she almost certainly didn’t. That’s Kravitz’s performance in a nutshell, she does not let you catch her acting. Even as she’s always easy to root for, she plays so realistically frustrating and off-putting that she never asks the audience for sympathy. She keeps a tight grip on her emotions as a defense mechanism, and when that defense is broken she makes it ugly to watch. As much as Claire Foy’s performance in Unsane, this is an assertion of Kravitz being a true-blue star, someone who can make you lean in closer to each word or every motion even as they try to push the audience away. Her performance is the engine that keeps this moving, especially because, as the great Willow Maclay has noted, every stylistic decision and piece of mise-en-scene is designed to accentuate her body language and state of being (Soderbergh even holds back on his usual blue filters because they would intrude on the effect of Kravitz’s dyed blue hair). It’s notable that the only instances of the archetypal late-Soderbergh shot, cold digital tableaux dwarfing the characters in the frame, are in the few scenes without Kravitz. Having them for comparison shows just how much Soderbergh adapted his style to Kravitz’s restless, deliberate movements, putting the movie in her hands knowing that she’ll do it right.
Even more than I’m glad I keep enjoying Soderbergh’s new work, I’m glad he keeps surprising me a little each time (even The Laundromat, because bad surprises are still surprises). You can more or less guess where he’s going with these no-fat genre exercises but the formula is never quite the same, he’s as allergic to repeating himself as ever before. Kimi really distinguishes itself with Soderbergh’s commitment to sturdy popcorn-thriller conventions, not even Side Effects played this broadly this well. We were lucky to get one of these out of Fincher and god willing Soderbergh has a few more variations on this up his sleeves.
Lester Scale: Classic
The Soderbergh Players: It may not be recognized as such, but Kimi is as much a victory lap of past Soderbergh actors as No Sudden Move. Comedian Byron Bowers returns from No Sudden Move with a bigger part this time around, Devin Ratray gets another strong supporting showcase after his touching performance on Mosaic, and Andy Daly gets another amusing cameo after being one of the revolving door of comedians in The Informant!. For some reason, this project seems to have really gotten Soderbergh in a Traffic mood, since both Jacob Vargas and Erika Christensen appear here. Vargas gets what amounts to a Hired Goon #1 part (Hired Goon #2 is played by Charles Halford, last seen as a helpful mechanic in Logan Lucky), and Christensen gets to be a muffled voice on a few audio files, a picture on a phone screen, and a physical presence only in a brief sequence shot so that you can barely see her clearly. It’s a better use of her than her plot in Traffic.
It’s nice to see all those returning faces again, but one appearance stands above all of them for three reasons. One is that this person is returning to Soderbergh for the first time since their astounding performance in Schizopolis 26 years ago. Another is that this person is Betsy Brantley, Soderbergh’s ex-wife who has only infrequently acted since Schizopolis (the only time they’ve worked together post-divorce is Brantley narrating the trailer for Gray’s Anatomy). And the last is that Brantley is the voice of KIMI, the ambiguously benevolent AI watching over this story. She even gets the last word in, either a cute joke to end the movie or a possible the-killer’s-not-dead sting.
Old friends return to Soderbergh behind the scenes as well. The most notable is Cliff Martinez, who hadn’t done a score for Soderbergh since season 2 of The Knick in 2015. Just as big is production designer Philip Messina returning for the first time since Che, which came after he designed every studio Soderbergh from Erin Brockovich to Ocean’s Thirteen (even the Eros short). It’s a great showcase for him too, with the camera having enough time in Angela’s artsy apartment to study every nook and cranny of it. But no Soderbergh collaborator gets quite the showcase that his longtime soundman (minus the iPhone movies and Let Them All Talk) Larry Blake does. Blake usually creates relatively subtle soundscapes (he gives interviews speaking negatively of sound designers who overload their movies with extraneous sounds, what he calls the “what-did-I-get-for-Christmas approach” to sound design), with many of his best moments being ones where he just drops every sound except score. But a movie centered around a sound calls for more involved sound design and that’s just what Blake delivers here. A few of his tricks get special attention, like the hellish racket of every outdoor scene or the dropout of sound whenever Angela wears noise-cancelling headphones (or my favorite, the upstairs construction noise that somehow sounds like dying whales), but his masterstroke is the central sound, which registers as something frightening even with the lowest signal-to-noise ratio possible.
- The sad Hulu magician is in this movie too. I did not watch In & Of Itself so I can’t speak to Derek DelGaudio’s charisma as a stage performer, here he’s decent in a role that’s fairly limited and small despite its prominence to the plot. Maybe not one of Soderbergh’s most revelatory left-field casting decisions, but it’s very funny that he saw the hype around DelGaudio’s open shows of emotion and cast him as a sniveling, insincere little worm.
- Speaking of casting decisions, I must take the time to shout out Soderbergh’s go-to casting director Carmen Cuba, who also worked on The Matrix Resurrections and thus has given us two tough women with blue hair in the last four months. Lesbians everywhere thank her for her great work.
- Soon after Kimi, I watched Josephine Decker’s The Sky is Everywhere and got to see two very different ways of presenting text messages in film back to back. Decker presents them “written” on-screen in a Microsoft Word-ass font, while Soderbergh just puts bigger versions of how they appear on the phone in the frame so he doesn’t have to cut to a screen every few minutes (there’s some good talk about the difficulty and unfortunate necessity of filming screens in Soderbergh’s recent interview on the Film Comment Podcast). Simplicity as the best artistic approach versus trying to be cute and just being nauseating.
- One of the few things I liked about The Laundromat was a brief sequence with the yellow tint and barrel distortion of being shot through the bottom of a beer bottle. This movie takes that good idea and makes it an extraordinary setpiece, possibly even one colored by Soderbergh’s documented Twin Peaks: The Return fandom.
- This has maybe the craziest comedian cameo of any Soderbergh project yet. I knew Andy Daly was coming because he was in the trailer but I was unprepared for the sight of David Wain showing up over Zoom as Angela’s frustrated dentist. His appearance is as shocking as the ensuing realization that he’s the first member of The State to be stunt-cast in a Soderbergh movie. If Michael Showalter wasn’t busy phoning in prestige biopics, he’d know this is what he needed to do.
- You can tell this is aspiring to 90s/2000s popcorn cinema because one of Angela’s allies is a comic-relief Eastern European who would’ve been played by Peter Stormare two decades ago.
- You can also tell the 90s influence from the closing needledrop, which is old enough and so awesomely on-the-nose that it could’ve served the same function in The Net or any other mid-90s tech thriller.
- I learned while writing this that even the more classical sections in Angela’s apartment were shot using the LED-screen technology that’s taking over the industry post-Mandalorian. It’s a completely invisible effect here, even on second viewing I’m not sure where the effects shots are. But it just goes to show that every new Soderbergh is a tech demo of some kind, and seeing him futz around with new tools is always part (but not all) of the fun.
- The only reason I’m still tempted to believe that this is just how Zoe Kravitz dries her hands in real life is a Soderbergh anecdote in the Solaris commentary about the scene where Natascha McElhone takes a pill by taking a swig of water before she puts the pill in. Soderbergh thought that was a brilliant choice on McElhone’s part, showing how the Solaris replicas are subtly different from those on Earth. He then learned that that’s just how McElhone takes pills in real life.
- Soderbergh’s commitment to the freeze-frame close-up remains one of his most endearing traits.
Up Next: Oh my my, oh hell yes, you gotta put on that party dress because it’s Magic Mike’s Last Dance.