In November 2019, a month after the heartbreak of The Laundromat and three months after he shot all of Let Them All Talk, Steven Soderbergh decided that was enough downtime and he was ready to make another movie. That movie, then titled Kill Switch, was on-rails and mere weeks away from shooting when the pandemic shut down all Hollywood productions, leaving Soderbergh with nothing to do but write a sex, lies, and videotape sequel and two other screenplays, remaster and reedit several of his older movies for a box-set release, host a Singani 63 webseries interviewing bartenders, and watch a lot of Below Deck. As a fun side hobby, he also headed the Directors Guild’s committee to decide the protocols for safely shooting films during COVID, which put him in the position to shoot a movie as a trial balloon for his own guidelines. And this is how, in late September 2020, Kill Switch finally came to fruition, now retitled No Sudden Move. The production delays meant you could construct another solid cast just from the actors who had to bow out (tell me you wouldn’t see a movie starring Cedric the Entertainer, John Cena, Josh Brolin, Sebastian Stan, and George Clooney), but the cast that made it on-screen is worthy of being called a galaxy of stars, combining the best of prestige TV, Film Twitter faves, and previous Soderbergh movies. And fret not, this isn’t a Laundromat situation where all these great actors are getting table scraps.
The year is 1954. Curt Goynes (Don Cheadle) is just out of prison, back in Detroit, and already in deep shit. He’s managed to piss off both the heads of the Italian mob (Ray Liotta) and the Black mob (Bill Duke) and is just looking for a safe place in Kansas City when a job comes around, proposed by mob goon Jones (Brendan Fraser). The job seems entirely too simple to be on the level: Curt and two other men “babysit” the Wertz family, wife Mary (Amy Seimetz) and children Matthew (Noah Jupe) and Peggy (Lucy Holt), at their home while patriarch Matt (David Harbour) retrieves an important document from his boss’s safe. Problems reveal themselves immediately. The document isn’t in the safe. The home invasion quickly reveals fatal cracks in Matt and Mary’s marriage. One of the other two criminals (Kieran Culkin) could charitably be called a hothead. By the end of the whole ordeal, Curt and his other accomplice, dandy mobster Ronald Russo (Benicio del Toro), are left to figure out what went wrong, why, and who was behind this arrangement in the first place. They’re smart, but as Liotta puts it, they’re not smart enough to realize how not smart they are. They are meddling in forces beyond their understanding and far beyond their power.
No Sudden Move has been much-hyped as yet another Soderbergh heist movie, the genre that has come to define him despite his constant attempts to confound people’s expectations for him. And here’s another attempt at that, because going into Move with the expectations of it being Ocean’s 1954 will do you no favors. The Ocean’s movies and Logan Lucky are, and I say this with complete love, Saturday morning cartoon versions of crime movies, where nobody gets hurt and everything working out in the end is never in question (this is the central joke of Ocean’s Twelve, how far do these guys have to be pushed into a corner until you believe they’re actually in trouble?). Soderbergh’s previous trip to Detroit, Out of Sight, is tougher and more violent, but even there you get the sense that suave George Clooney probably isn’t going to end up dead by the end. But this is an infinitely more cynical movie than any of those, a black-hearted noir where an “everyone dies” ending never seems out of the realm of possibility; in this sense, it might be Soderbergh’s long-awaited second crack at The Underneath. Much of Move takes the form of a buddy movie, but Curt and Russo are “buddies” comically willing to sell each other out at any moment, they only stick together because the deals they make against each other keep backfiring. This extremely tenuous bond is one of the stronger relationships in the movie, where trusting anyone often gets you on the receiving end of a bullet from that person. The extent to which everyone in this is fucking everyone else becomes a dark joke as the double- and triple-crosses pile up, Ed Solomon’s script is twisty but it really all comes back to that this is an ecosystem of fools destroying each other. Meanwhile, the people with the actual smarts and power are not concerning themselves with such crude matters.
I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by saying that, as with almost every Soderbergh since Che, it all comes back to the rot of capitalism. The choice of Detroit as a setting is not a thoughtless one, to think of Detroit is to think of the evils of the auto industry. That plays a big part here, as does the city’s history of redlining and demolishing Black neighborhoods in the name of “urban renewal” (Curt and his friends remove the subtext and call it “Negro removal”). It’s no accident that Curt and Russo’s adventures keep leading them to the opulent houses and hotels of Detroit’s elite auto executives, a far cry from the decaying and soon-to-be-nonexistent Black Bottom neighborhood that Curt used to call home. The production design is by the great Hannah Beachler, and it’s a continuation of her work on Todd Haynes’ terrific Dark Waters, where every location, no matter how nice, comes to represent the horror of living under capitalism’s boot; never has a gorgeous hotel meeting room seemed more obscene and monstrous than it does here. That hotel meeting room is the backdrop for the film’s climax, which is violence-free, completely cordial, and terrifying beyond reason. It’s hard to watch it without thinking of Ned Beatty’s scene in Network (even down to the endless conference table the characters sit at), but Beatty is a fire-and-brimstone preacher of what he believes to be God’s law. The man Curt and Russo meet knows that only man, not God, could have created this awful system that kills men and destroys their souls over pieces of paper. And he thinks that’s beautiful, he stands awed beneath this machine and keeps it running smoothly. It’s a scene of an unfathomable, almost biblical evil in a movie otherwise built around the petty scheming of small-time criminals. In effect, it’s what The Laundromat was trying and failing to accomplish, framing acts of violence and betrayal as small potatoes next to the corporate and institutional crime occurring with no consequences on a much larger scale. It helps that, unlike Laundromat, Move‘s human story is already an engaging one, so the reveal of its relative pointlessness actually stings like it should. And while Laundromat gives up doing anything but moralizing, Soderbergh is wise enough to let this scene be a cul-de-sac in the story, coloring everything before and after but not taking it over. Cheadle and Del Toro react to it as indifferently as most would and then go on their way.
No Sudden Move is about many lofty things, but it is also about a marriage. A really shitty marriage. Matt is targeted for the job in the first place because he’s sleeping with his boss’s secretary (Frankie Shaw), and during the “heist” he spends most of the time hemming and hawing about telling Mary about the affair (the criminals are kind enough to tell Mary for him). That’s only the beginning of the reveal of Matt being the biggest wimp in history, the kind of man who will find a way to brownnose his boss even when he’s about to punch that boss in the face. Harbour is an actor of such threatening physicality that he can’t help but come off a little intimidating even in nice roles, but here he’s nothing but impotence personified, a man who receives no respect and deserves no respect (Matthew uses the extra “-hew” solely to distance himself from his loser dad). He’s an I Think You Should Leave character transplanted into an Elmore Leonard world, you can absolutely imagine him getting insulted by a magician and just taking it. Harbour is wonderful in this kind of anxious comedic mode, but Seimetz is just as good playing much straighter. She’s against-type casting in her own way, she gravitates as both actress and director towards women who are lost in their own skin, but Mary is made of much stronger stuff than her husband. It seems she was already halfway out the door even before the criminal business started (for reasons that become clear later) and the home invasion, once the initial fright wore off, mostly just emboldens her to get away from this dope. In a movie where everybody else might as well have dollar signs for eyes, Seimetz acts purely out of wanting a better life for her and her children, and maybe Soderbergh and Solomon’s only act of mercy is that they don’t make her plans go up in flames with everyone else’s.
Seimetz and Harbour are the two MVPs of a cast of nothing but winners. Putting Don Cheadle in the center of a period neo-noir almost demands comparisons to his breakout role in Devil in a Blue Dress, but if Curt ever possessed Mouse’s live-wire energy, it’s long been beaten out of him by the time he first walks on-screen. Cheadle really sells the bone-deep exhaustion that comes with the daily struggles of both being a low-rung criminal and a Black man in a white-controlled world, he’s had to act as deliberately as possible for too long and even that hasn’t kept him in the clear. He’s been in it long enough that he’s never surprised when a plan falls through, but you really feel his sorrow in those moments even when he tries to play it cool. Curt’s tired of living like this, meanwhile Russo just seems literally tired. Benicio Del Toro is an actor you hire when you want Big Choices executed as intelligently as possible (remember, don’t tell anybody), and his choice for Russo is to have him wander through the movie in a half-daze. Russo might be smartly underplaying or he might just be absentmindedly Mr. Magooing his way through death and betrayal, Del Toro gives you no concrete answer and that’s as it should be.
Deeper down the cast list, you have a bunch of strong supporting actors doing everything you want and expect from them. Julia Fox has only been in one movie that anybody’s seen and she’s already getting cast exactly to type, her gangster’s moll in this is nearly identical to her Uncut Gems character in every way except wardrobe. That she makes no effort to try to adjust her Gems party-girl persona to the 50s setting of Move has proven a detriment for some, but in the hands of a filmmaker all about exploiting star images, she doesn’t need to change what already works. Same goes for Kieran Culkin, who simply plays snarky, overly verbose assholes better than almost anyone and does that here with little added notes of menace to keep you on your toes. Casting Jon Hamm as the clean-cut but suspicious-seeming government agent is just a home run, no one looks more like the personification of that part than he does. And even Soderbergh has previously understood that Bill Duke standing still and saying nothing conveys unshakeable authority better than any other actor yelling and puffing up his chest. The man is a human brick wall and god help you if you think you’re getting past him.
Of course, Soderbergh is never content to just play star personas straight, he’s gotta monkey around with a few of them. Lest we forget, in 1995, when Brendan Fraser was the comedy himbo du jour, Soderbergh got a terrific, way-out-of-character performance from him as a soulless, charmless hitman in his episode for the noir-pastiche anthology series Fallen Angels (if you haven’t seen the episode, “Professional Man”, I can’t recommend it highly enough). Now, after a number of traumatic experiences with the Hollywood machine, Fraser finally enters the late character-actor portion of his career and with another violent noir part. As he appears here, Fraser looks and feels like a 40s contract player, he’s got Peter Lorre’s eyes and Sydney Greenstreet’s menacing bulk and quickly erases any memories of him as the hunky goofball. He’s a great comedy yeller, but when he yells in this the effect is blood-chilling, you can hear the violence in his voice. On the other end of the spectrum, Ray Liotta’s casting is a continuation of the last decade’s run of auteurs brave enough to make Liotta look completely pathetic, whether getting his ass beat to a pulp in Killing Them Softly or having his aggro alpha-male energy put to use for the world’s most contemptible profession in Marriage Story. Liotta’s mob boss here is all bark and little bite when stakes get high, he’s a patsy with too much dumb pride to realize he’s not the be-all end-all until it’s too late for him (the turn comes when he’s forced to burrow through the trunk and back seat of a car like the little rat that he is). His “not smart enough” line is a real “physician, heal thyself” moment.
And then there’s the big cameo. If you’ve remained unspoiled on it in the week since its release (or the months since this cameo was formally announced by the trades) and wish to keep it that way, you can skip to the next paragraph. If you already know or don’t care about knowing, then I’m pleased to tell you that No Sudden Move contains one of Matt Damon’s best and most unexpected performances to date. When I first heard about Damon’s casting, I thought it would be a fun pop-in like Unsane or Che Part Two, but this is a rich part for him despite its limited screentime. This isn’t his first time tweaking his white-bread appeal for Soderbergh, but those other times generally involve some element of transformation: his doughy Midwestern physique in The Informant!, his bitchy plastic-surgery Frankenstein in Behind the Candelabra, his nose in Ocean’s Thirteen (it’s not just a prop for prop’s sake). In Move, he is simply Matt Damon as we all know him, only he’s saying things that reveal shocking evil beneath the placid exterior; this is how so many monsters in real life are, unassuming-looking and perfectly smart-sounding and quietly fanatical in their desire to make the world a little more awful each day. I’ve never seen Damon play this philosophical on-screen, he’s in love with his own bullshit purple-prose view of the world and that would be loathsome even if what he’s saying wasn’t horrifying. Soderbergh’s buddy George Clooney tried to get out this side of Damon in Suburbicon and failed miserably, because that movie’s limp Coen brothers buffoonery gave him too much of an out to avoid digging deep into his character. Soderbergh gives Damon no such place to hide and he’s a revelation as a result.
Finally, we come to a discussion of what seems to be Soderbergh’s most controversial stylistic decision since shooting on his iPhone. Let Them All Talk was built on stunning visual simplicity, straightforward shot-reverse shot compositions with some of the most gorgeous color and lighting of his career. As only a restless spirit like Soderbergh can, No Sudden Move goes in the exact opposite direction. One of his stated inspirations for Move‘s cinematography is Nicholas Ray’s Bigger Than Life, a film of vibrant widescreen compositions that nonetheless feel deathly claustrophobic. The advent of smaller digital cameras means that Soderbergh can go even further with that, he gets the lens right in the actors’ faces and makes ornate camera moves within spaces that seem too cramped to allow that (by the end of the home invasion, you will be intimately familiar with the spacial geography of the Wertz home). He further accentuates that level of discomfort by using the widest-angle lenses I’ve seen outside of the work of Nathaniel Hornblower, and this is where the complaints are coming in. Outside of a few scenes Soderbergh plays straight, the effect is undeniably extreme. Whenever the camera pans, which it does often, the edges of the frame warp so severely that even a layman can’t help but notice (Marc Maron, perhaps not the most enlightened speaker on film, told Soderbergh that this made him think he got a defective screener). I can provide some thematic rationalization for why it’s more than a distracting gimmick: the feeling of settings distorting and collapsing as the camera moves past them has obvious relevance for a movie about how nothing is what it appears to be, and it can also be tied to the portrayal of Detroit as a city in the middle of a squeeze that will eventually kill it. But I’d be lying to myself and to you if I didn’t say that my main reason for liking it is that it just looks fucking cool. It’s really cool to see a movie create visuals that I genuinely have never seen in a movie before, where the most traditional kind of camera movement suddenly seems exciting and new. I felt the same way about the iPhone movies (Unsane especially) and his most recent movie that’s allegedly not a tech demo, The Laundromat, is one of the blandest-looking movies of his career; my only conclusion is let the man experiment, it looks great and the alternative is him just getting bored.
No Sudden Move is not a crown jewel in the Soderbergh filmography. It sits almost exactly in the middle of his body of work, alongside other really fun genre exercises like Haywire or Side Effects. But it’s yet another testament not just to Soderbergh’s extraordinary consistency but to his allergy to complacency. Any director could take the parts of this and coast to watchability, but only an elite craftsman can smuggle in this kind of thematic depth or stylistic adventurousness without it coming at the expense of the inherent scummy pleasures of a good crime movie. We’re so lucky to be living in a time when this man is working.
Lester Scale: Classic
The Soderbergh Players: With this, Don Cheadle enters the surprisingly exclusive club of Ocean’s cast members to work with Soderbergh after the trilogy’s conclusion. A few planned Sodey-Clooney collaborations fell apart (including this), and the collapse of Soderbergh’s Moneyball seems to have put some distance between him and Brad Pitt, but Cheadle, Elliott Gould, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Eddie Jemison have all been welcomed back to the fold since 2007. Wait, am I forgetting someone else too? Hmm.
Elsewhere, this is the first Benicio Del Toro-Soderbergh collaboration since Che, and the only one of their three collaborations where Del Toro speaks no Spanish. It’s the third Soderbergh collaboration for Bill Duke and the third and unfortunately final collaboration (after small parts in Side Effects and The Knick) for the late actor/poet Craig muMs Grant. And it’s technically the second collaboration between Soderbergh and Amy Seimetz, after he produced both seasons of The Girlfriend Experience she co-directed, though their partnership goes beyond what’s credited; Soderbergh shouted her and Barry Jenkins out as talents to watch in his 2013 “state of cinema” address, and the two gave a joint New York Times interview about Contagion and Seimetz’s similarly prescient She Dies Tomorrow at the height of the pandemic.
There’s a good combination of new and old Soderbergh collaborators on the crew. Ed Solomon’s become a recent Soderbergh favorite, he wrote Mosaic and Soderbergh produced his long-awaited Bill & Ted sequel last year. This is David Holmes’ ninth score for Soderbergh (not counting his rejected score for The Good German) and fourth just since the unretirement in 2017. Casting director Carmen Cuba remains Soderbergh’s rock for this last decade, and after sitting out Let Them All Talk, Larry Blake returns to the sound designer position he’s held for 30+ years and 30+ projects. Sitting this out are Soderbergh’s go-to production designer Howard Cummings (who will be missing KIMI too) and costume designer Ellen Mirojnick (who will return for KIMI). Filling in for Mirojnick is Marci Rodgers (BlacKkKlansman), returning to Soderbergh after doing the costumes for High Flying Bird and once again doing an excellent job (I particularly love the flowery tops she gives Seimetz and her fellow housewife).
- I’ve been hard on the last few David Holmes scores, feeling that they weren’t up to his or Soderbergh’s usual high standards. But this one is a return to form, getting back to the fun neo-Henry Mancini vibes of his Haywire and Ocean’s Thirteen scores.
- This movie features a particularly ghoulish riff on the old “Bible in the breast pocket” chestnut. That trick only works when the shooter is courteous enough to fire just the once.
- This has been the subject of much more publicity and discussion than Let Them All Talk, and I get it. One is a fun genre movie with twists and turns and lots of big stars, the other is an improvised dramedy about old ladies passive-aggressively refusing to discuss past grievances. But I think it’s a shame that Let Them All Talk has gotten swept under the rug like this, it’s only grown for me on rewatch and reflection and might be the magnum opus of his post-retirement era. And as great as almost everyone is in Move, I think Lucas Hedges might be the best performance in any Soderbergh movie. If I haven’t previously convinced you to see it, let this be my final recommendation of it.
- Soderbergh may claim to not do overt autobiography in his movies, but a character in this makes a point to talk about how he’s Swedish but with a Jewish-sounding last name. Make of this what you will.
Up Next: Zoe Kravitz and the sad magician from that Hulu special join forces for KIMI. And we’re finally getting the Kafka director’s cut, now retitled Mr. Kneff.