September 2021

Arts & Letters

True to form: ‘No Sudden Move’

By Shane Danielsen

Steven Soderbergh’s Detroit crime movie is another formal experiment with commercial trappings

Detroit, 1954. Fresh out of prison and in need of some cash, Curt Goynes (Don Cheadle) is hired by one “Mr Jones” (Brendan Fraser, looking here like Sydney Greenstreet) to perform what seems a simple task: “babysitting” the wife and children of local businessman Matt Wertz (David Harbour) while he’s being forced to steal a document from a safe at his office. It’s a three-man job – two to watch the family, one to accompany Wertz to his workplace – and so Curt is teamed with another local hood, Ronald Russo (Benicio del Toro), and, more worryingly, with a guy called Charley (Kieran Culkin) whom no one, including Mr Jones, seems to know much about.

Ronald and Curt are has-beens, each aware that their best days – if there ever were such a thing – are long behind them. Ronald simply wants to get enough cash to retire and take off, ideally with Vanessa (Julia Fox), the bored wife of local gangster Frank Capelli (Ray Liotta, typecast but superb). But Curt wants something more: not only to buy a parcel of land he’s had his eye on in Kansas but also to funnel some money back into the local Black community, a legacy project that might go some way towards redeeming him in the eyes of others and to himself.

Of course it all goes spectacularly awry, and before long a cop (  Jon Hamm) is poking around and finding holes in everybody’s story. Suffice it to say, no one’s motives here are quite as clear-cut as they first appear. Gradually, the shadow of a broader conspiracy begins to descend over proceedings, one tied closely to the city’s then-thriving automotive industry. And Ronald and Curt, already reluctant partners, are forced to rely on each other in order to stay alive.

Billed as a return to the crime movies at which he excelled, No Sudden Move does indeed find filmmaker Steven Soderbergh revisiting the terrain of such past hits as Ocean’s Eleven and Out of Sight. Certainly, the familiar ingredients are all in place: a lean, twisty script from Ed Solomon, a discreetly funky score from long-time collaborator David Holmes. Best of all, though, is the production design by rising star Hannah Beachler, whose credits include Moonlight, Black Panther and Beyoncé’s Lemonade, and who makes the most of the mid-century setting, crafting a lush, meticulous re-creation of the era that never for a moment feels airless or studied.

And then there’s the direction: assured, efficient, yet always surprising. Though he came to reject the early influence of Antonioni (“he’s terrific, but I think at some level it’s not an appropriate style for an American filmmaker”), Soderbergh retains the Italian master’s feeling for architecture and awareness of the expressive possibilities of colour. He also brings out the best in his actors, giving them the space (sometimes literally, in uncluttered frames and long takes) to work their magic, and both del Toro and Cheadle are excellent here – their relationship less the wisecracking camaraderie of a buddy-flick than the grudging mutual acceptance of two weary men with no better options to explore.

Now 58, Soderbergh has, by the standards of modern-day Hollywood, enjoyed a long and storied career. He’s won an Oscar for Best Director (in 2001, for Traffic), and an Emmy in the same category (for 2013’s Behind the Candelabra), as well as a slew of film critics association and Directors Guild awards. His debut feature, 1989’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape, earned him the Palme d’Or at Cannes. “Well, I guess it’s all downhill from here,” he sighed, in his acceptance speech – a geeky-looking 26-year-old in a rented tux. And for a while, it looked like he was right.

He followed that triumph two years later with something much more expensive and far less successful – the mostly black-and-white, sort-of biopic Kafka – and in so doing, demonstrated each of the traits that would define his subsequent career: a penchant for stylistic left-turns at the expense of a distinct “Soderbergh style”, and a tendency to over-intellectualise. I’ve met him on numerous occasions, and can attest to his braininess: he’s a voracious reader and consumer of movies, a shrewd critic, and a wryly amused participant in the various insanities that constitute the biz. But his faintly academic, above-the-fray persona caused many in power to distrust him; this, coupled with some less-than-stellar choices, quickly led him into the commercial wilderness. And while some of his films from that early period were underrated – 1993’s King of the Hill deserves serious reappraisal, and, though the director himself disowns it, I still think The Underneath, his 1995 remake of the old Robert Siodmak noir Criss Cross, is pretty terrific – these not only failed to find an audience in their own right, but suffered further alongside genuinely WTF “experiments” such as Schizopolis (1996).

What saved him was Out of Sight (1998). It was his last chance (“I had to audition for it,” he admitted years later) and he seized it – in the process, crafting a modern American classic. Chastened by his time in the wilderness, he then applied his technique to more mainstream projects: Erin Brockovich, Traffic, Ocean’s Eleven. Success and acclaim followed. But being a genius of the system never sat quite right with him – and so Full Frontal (2002) was a return to the absurdist, Richard Lester–inspired hijinks of Schizopolis, and Ocean’s Twelve (2004), less a sequel to a $450 million–grossing crowd-pleaser than a kind of playful meta-fiction about the making of an Ocean’s Twelve–like movie, right down to Julia Roberts playing a character who’s frequently mistaken for Julia Roberts.

I mention these films because No Sudden Move operates in much the same way, simultaneously satisfying and upending expectations. It begins with a long travelling shot of Cheadle walking purposefully down a Detroit street at dusk, an opening straight out of a pulp novel: “Down these mean streets” et cetera. But as he walks, the director cuts away to show a succession of archival photographs, of Black men and women, Black families, drawn from the city’s past. These days a shell of its former self, Detroit is a charged setting for any American storyteller – especially a white filmmaker. Yet it’s an unexpectedly good fit for Soderbergh, whose best work demonstrates an acute awareness of class relations and institutional power structures. Belying his reputation as a chilly formalist, many of his most successful films, from Erin Brockovich to Magic Mike, have in fact been compassionate studies of minimum-wage strivers, ordinary men and women clinging tenaciously to the ragged hem of the American Dream.

In this case, the target of his outrage is twofold. First, the urban renewal plan that ran freeways through the heart of Detroit’s Paradise Valley and Black Bottom neighbourhoods in the late 1950s, displacing families and gutting Black-owned businesses. And second, the so-called redlining that saw banks, corporations and insurance companies cease investment in non-white metropolitan neighbourhoods. Those communities then had to begin paying more in order to access basic services; when, inevitably, they couldn’t keep up, property values declined further, and those areas became ghettos. Just two of America’s countless examples of institutional racism, these factors marked the beginning of Detroit’s long and probably terminal decline.

The casual viewer might, however, be slightly thrown, both by the casual, almost prosaic nature of the film’s violence (unlike, say, Tarantino, Soderbergh is fundamentally uninterested in macho posturing, and doesn’t bother to disguise it) and by its visuals. In particular, by some flattened widescreen shots that, especially when panning, make the characters look like they’re moving against a zoetrope, the background curving away at either end of the frame.

The reason is at once technical and aesthetic. The film is shot digitally (on the RED Monstro, according to the closing credits), but the decision to use ultra-wide anamorphic lenses ensures there’s more information to take in than that camera’s sensor can quite handle. So the edges of the frame frequently warp and recede – and also darken, as if falling away into shadow. Combined with canted angles and some oddly weighted compositions, this makes for a movie that looks distinctly odd, reminiscent at times of the pictorial-plane distortions of Aleksandr Sokurov; it constantly draws attention to its own artifice. Yet Soderbergh is both director and cinematographer here (under his nom de travail Peter Andrews), so the choice could hardly be more deliberate.

I feel like this decision is key to understanding his cinema, much of the pleasure of which resides in watching the familiar (actors we like, genres or settings we typically enjoy) rub up against the unexpected and peculiar. The friction, in other words, between subject and style, or the story and its telling. They’re films that wear the trappings of commercial appeal, but are actually experiments in form – which makes sense because, as an artist, Soderbergh is much more interested in process than in outcome. What makes these ventures noteworthy is his storytelling nous, his fluency with the camera and his ability to attract major stars. (And I haven’t even mentioned the biggest name here, who appears, unbilled, late in the film’s third act.)

Of course, this kind of thing only really pays off if, like me, you’re simultaneously watching and analysing the film – which doesn’t exactly conform to most people’s viewing experience. But then, I’ve never thought of Soderbergh as an especially egalitarian filmmaker. He’s challenging himself, putting in the work – and he wants you to know it. More than that, he expects you to pitch in. In an age of increasingly passive content-consumption, he’s extending to the viewer the courtesy of reciprocity. Of being an active, engaged partner in the filmmaking process. It would be churlish, I think, not to take him up on it.

Shane Danielsen

Shane Danielsen is a screenwriter and former artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

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