Since I last checked up on Steven Soderbergh, his wonderful unretirement vehicle (heh) Logan Lucky was unsurprisingly but still disappointingly a bomb. We’re lucky (heh again), however, that his next project had no way of being affected by that film’s performance, as it was finished before Logan Lucky even began shooting. After two straight years of speculation and mystery, Soderbergh’s Mosaic is finally coming out into the world. Initially sold as a “choose-your-own-adventure” type deal, it was formally revealed last month to be something a little different, an app where the viewer can choose how to navigate a locked story (making them the director or at least the editor). Or they can just wait until January for a streamlined six-part TV version of the same story on HBO. But where’s the fun in just doing one or the other? No, I will cover both, even if the time spent on both means I will have spent half a day consuming this story.
This will obviously be a much different review than is normal for these things, and I will start with the basics before getting into the app design itself. The plot (written by Ed Solomon) is as such; Olivia Lake (Sharon Stone) is the author of one massively successful children’s book and the current head of a children’s charity named “Mosaic”. She goes missing, and her fiancé Eric Neill (Frederick Weller) is fingered for her murder and eventually pleads guilty to it, despite the lack of a body. But four years later, with the discovery of Olivia’s severed hand, Eric’s sister Petra (Jennifer Ferrin) goes on a quest to prove her brother’s innocence.
Now, how does Soderbergh shoot all this? The answer, as you probably expected, is really fucking well. His filmmaking here bridges the gap between the blown-out, handheld images of The Knick (and the slightly more stable ones of Side Effects and Behind the Candelabra) and the clean, precise style he unveiled in Logan Lucky. The scenes in Utah four years ago are jittery (complete with what I believe is the first example of a Soderbergh bodycam shot) and filled with the color tinting that Logan Lucky so surprisingly lacked, with blue being the most prominent color (because Utah is goddamn cold). But as we enter the “present-day” scenes, the colors become more natural (if not totally devoid of coloring, mostly amber or yellow) and the camera is locked-down, with the same kind of unfussily perfect compositions that distinguished Logan Lucky (there’s even a near exact recreation of the blocking of the Tatum-Jim O’Heir meeting from that in this, although since Mosaic was shot first I guess it would be the other way around). The present takes the aesthetic of a slick detective movie, while the past is closer to real life, or at least a distant memory of real life, where the details and images have been fogged by the passage of time. And in case you’re wondering if there’s any of Soderbergh blatantly paying homage to his cinematic favorites, I should inform you that there is a direct, blatant rip-off of the opening shot of The Graduate at one point.
Also like Logan Lucky, this has a score by the ever-great David Holmes. But his score there was used quite sparingly, a few cues in a soundtrack otherwise dominated by 70s needledrops. This is a much more prominent score, and an interesting evolution from his previous work with Soderbergh. In the past, Holmes has been on-hand to score Soderbergh’s purely fluffy, fun movies (Cliff Martinez got the darker ones, and Thomas Newman got the ones in the middle), bringing a delightful mixture of house music and Hollywood scores of the 60s and 70s to each one. While Mosaic isn’t not fun (nothing with goofball bits on the second Hobbit movie and The Wire could be that un-fun), it’s more than a little bleaker than the norm for Holmes-Soderbergh collaborations, and so Holmes goes much more downbeat than normal, incorporating some more Martinez-esque overtly electronic elements (including a major reveal scored mostly by a drum machine), albeit with still a hint of Lalo Schrifin in there.
And I should mention the actors too. This has a massive cast, with some familiar faces but mostly bubbling-under character actors. Since Soderbergh is a great director of actors (unless your name is Alex Pettyfer), they pretty much all do well here. By virtue of the elusiveness of her part, Stone maybe gets the least to do of the main cast, but she still makes an impression in the time she gets, perfectly capturing what makes Olivia so alluring even as she pushes people away. Weller starts off seeming a little too overtly creepy, but as we see more of him, Weller warms up and Eric becomes a lot more three-dimensional. And Ferrin reminded me a bit of Jennifer Ehle in Contagion (which is one of my favorite performances of all time, so that’s a good thing) in her no-nonsense devotion to her quest. I will say, however, that Garrett Hedlund, against all odds, left the biggest impression on me. He’s been one of the more obvious examples of Hollywood returning again and again to bland, white pretty boys who can’t open movies, but he acquits himself very well here as someone who it eventually becomes obvious is hanging on by a thread.
Below is the first “path” I took through the story, basically cutting a two-hour movie out of this dense web of material. For the sake of brevity (and not completely ruining every element of the story), I won’t go through the additional paths I took after this one.
Meet Olivia Lake
One day, in a ski lodge in Summit, Utah, after enduring a talk from a wannabe Ponzi schemer, Olivia encounters Eric. He talks a big game, and soon, despite the suspicions of Olivia’s best friend (Paul Reubens), they forge a relationship. But Eric’s motives may be no more pure than Olivia’s earlier conversation partner. This all occurs in one conventionally-edited (well, conventionally for Soderbergh) 25-minute chunk, with the one obvious element of interactivity being a sole flashback (to Olivia talking with an old business partner, played by James Ransome) you can “cut to” in the middle of a scene. It ends at a Christmas party, with everybody happily together for the time being.
Joel: First Contact
Joel (Garrett Hedlund) is introduced towards the end of the first chunk as a random guy boarding in Olivia’s house. With Joel, you witness a tale of an illustrator moonlighting as a bartender. Olivia decides to take him under his wing, he makes friends with a UPS worker named Frank who’s impressed by his work (amusingly played by The Knick‘s Jeremy Bobb), and he struggles to maintain his relationship with his girlfriend Laura (Maya Kazan). Three months into the arrangement, on New Year’s Eve, he has a blow-up with Olivia and leaves with another woman (played by Bridey Elliott, daughter of Chris). But just as Frank gives him the alibi for Laura of having seen The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug with him in the time he was actually fooling around (this is truly a banner year for nerd fantasy epics joked about in Soderbergh projects), he needs that alibi for something much bigger. Olivia has gone missing, and Eric has been arrested for it. And then it’s four years later, Joel has moved to Louisiana, and Petra has tracked him down to help her clear Eric’s name. This section has more of an interactive element, where you can “pause” and look at Joel’s drawings or a news site’s multiple stories about the Lake disappearance and Eric’s “confession” to the crime (or, rather hilariously, a profile on a Summit native who won an Emmy for writing an HBO series about President McKinley).
Petra has teamed up with Detective Nate (Devin Ratray), the husband of Laura’s friend who was working the Olivia Lake case when it broke. It’s a classic odd-couple scenario; Petra is the colder one, talking shop about early 20th century art and even getting her own noirish voice-over, while Nate is jovial almost to a fault. But they make a pretty damn good team, and in this section they dismantle Joel’s alibi even as they chase down a potential lead involving someone who might have tried to steal from Olivia’s safe. We also learn a bit about the former head of police Alan Pape (Beau Bridges), who’s revealed in one of the additional clips in this section to be keeping a close eye on Nate and Petra’s activities.
Joel: The Noose
Joel and Petra hunt down their potential suspect by talking to his former girlfriend (Hail, Caesar!‘s Veronica Osorio), but that investigation quickly falls by the wayside when Olivia’s body is finally discovered, with Joel having to confront the possibility that he may have killed Olivia while black-out drunk. Joel starts breaking down, and Soderbergh’s otherwise polished filmmaking breaks down with him, with camera movements getting stranger (a simple bit with Joel in an elevator uses two very ostentatious pans, in contrast to the mostly classical style) and there being a jagged collage of Joel’s memories surroundings around Olivia. And here the additional material really cements itself as more than just a cute distraction. Each bonus clip further establishing how the noose (hey, that’s the name of the section!) is tightening around Joel, with Nate interviewing Frank and Laura (the Laura section has the aforementioned Graduate rip-off) and Petra leaving a vague voicemail on Joel’s phone.
Viewed in this order, you have a resolved mystery, but there are still loose ends to tied up. What was Eric’s deal? Why was Pape taking such an interest in the case? How was that HBO McKinley series? As the tagline sez, “Look Again.”
I suppose the biggest question regarding Mosaic is whether or not its construction is merely a cheap gimmick or something more substantive. I will say that it is addressed in the story itself, with Olivia’s book being a riff on the idea (if you read it one way, it’s about a hunter going after a mean bear, and if you read it another, it’s about a bear going after a mean hunter). And it is indeed an intriguing way to stage a mystery, where the viewer can get the experience of the surprise of a first viewing and the picking up on hidden clues of a second viewing without actually rewatching the same footage. But it mostly struck me as an extension (or a testing ground) for the structural generosity of Logan Lucky. Soderbergh has made ensemble movies before this year, but this year he really seems to have committed himself to ensembles where everyone gets their fair time in the spotlight (in Logan Lucky, it doesn’t matter if you’re Sebastian Stan or a day player, you’re getting a little segment of the movie to yourself). Mosaic‘s structure, from its web of perspectives to its additional clips, is ultimately designed to give every major character their fair shake, and so that the viewer gets a full investment in several characters no matter how they choose to navigate the story. It’s as if it’s only in this unwieldy a form that Soderbergh can so successfully meld a straightforward, simple mystery plot/approach to his newfound love for this kind of sprawling ensemble piece. I’m very intrigued to see how Soderbergh manages to translate this approach into a straight TV format, but hey, if he did so in two hours after making this, I imagine he’ll have no trouble.
Lester Scale: N/A (I’d call it a Really Fascinating Film That Gets Better With Age, but it’s been out a week and it’s also not a film)
The Soderbergh Players: Quite a few. There’s several Knick alums, including Bobb (the ever-flustered Mr. Barrow), Kazan (poor, mad, toothless Eleanor Gallinger), Ferrin (Dr. Thackery’s noseless former lover Abigail), and Weller (the deeply seedy “owner” of conjoined twins in season 2). Elsewhere, Beau Bridges was one of the assortment of untrustworthy Americans in The Good German, and Devin Ratray (otherwise known as Buzz from Home Alone) had a tiny part as one of Jude Law’s understandably concerned patients in Side Effects. And Soderbergh even fits in a small part for Jacob Vargas, so heartbreaking as Benicio del Toro’s partner in Traffic.
Soderbergh’s expected technical crew returns here as well. Obviously, Peter Andrews and Mary Ann Bernard are back, as they seem to be unusually loyal to Soderbergh (does he have dirt on them or something?). Howard Cummings does the production design, as he’s done for all of Soderbergh’s work from Contagion on, plus The Underneath, and Susan Lyall does the costumes, having worked on Side Effects and Soderbergh’s upcoming iPhone-shot horror movie Unsane. And good old Larry Blake, there from literally the beginning, is still sticking around as the sound designer/supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer.
But most importantly, for the second time this year, Soderbergh has brought back his recurring company name Perennial. It was a gas station in Logan Lucky, an armored-car company in The Underneath, and other shady companies in The Limey and Traffic, and here it is the name of Beau Bridges’ security firm.
Up Next: Season 2 of The Girlfriend Experience, with its comparatively simple two parallel storylines.