The Front Row
“No Sudden Move,” Reviewed: Steven Soderbergh’s New Crime Drama Is a Brisk Nostalgia Trip
The film, set in 1954 Detroit, involves corporate espionage and racial politics, but does so superficially.
By Richard Brody
July 1, 2021
Don Cheadle and Benicio del Toro play strangers who become partners in crime.Photograph by Claudette Barius
Like Janicza Bravo’s extraordinary new film, “Zola,” the new Steven Soderbergh film, “No Sudden Move,” is the story of a Black person who is lured into a dangerous criminal scheme by a white person—and, like Bravo, Soderbergh films with a distinctive, personalized flair. But where “Zola” is a revelation, “No Sudden Move” is a retread, an effortful reanimation of a genre with stylistic inspirations that, for all their fleeting pleasures, only adorn the action without reimagining it—and with serious themes that are merely leveraged as plot points. “No Sudden Move” (which comes out in theatres and on HBO Max on Thursday) is far from unpleasurable but even further from substantial; it’s a cinematic nostalgia trip that appears aimed at viewers hoping that Soderbergh will return to his manner of the nineties, and at critics lamenting the death of the mid-budget drama for adults that studios used to make.
The movie is set in Detroit, in 1954, where Curt Goynes (Don Cheadle), who has just been released from prison, wants to make five thousand dollars in a hurry, in order to reacquire land unjustly taken from him. His friend Jimmy (the late Craig muMs Grant), who runs a Black barbershop, points him to the back alley where a pompous white man named, of all things, Doug Jones (Brendan Fraser), is waiting for him with a five-thousand-dollar offer to “babysit” (i.e., hold hostage), for three hours, the family of a man who’s thereby being forced to steal some corporate documents and deliver them to his handlers. But the supposedly easy job—for which Curt is teamed with two partners in crime who are complete strangers to him and to each other, Ronald Russo (Benicio del Toro) and Charley Barnes (Kieran Culkin)—turns into a bloody mess. Leaving a corpse and deceptions in his wake, Curt teams up separately with Ronald to profit from the turmoil. Their plan is to get hold of the documents themselves and involve two Mob bosses, Aldrich Watkins (Bill Duke) who’s Black, and Frank Capelli (Ray Liotta), who’s white, in a scheme to sell them.
Along with the gangland story, however, comes a tale of corporate espionage: the man who’s been coerced to steal the documents is Matt Wertz (David Harbour), a middle manager at General Motors whose boss, Mel Forbert (Hugh Maguire), possesses them, knowing full well that other executives at other companies covet the technology that they outline. There are also tales of romance: Forbert’s secretary, Paula Cole (Frankie Shaw), is Matt’s lover, and Matt’s wife, Mary (Amy Seimetz), finds out. Ronald is also involved in (avoiding spoilers) an adulterous relationship, and it’s hinted that Curt, too, was in a relationship before he went to prison, and that the woman in question ended it while he was incarcerated. Along with the documents, there’s a second MacGuffin, Watkins’s record book, which has gotten loose and which threatens his local criminal empire. There’s also a police story, involving Detective Joe Finney (Jon Hamm), who finds the corpse and interrogates the Wertz family, including their children, Matthew (Noah Jupe) and Peggy (Lucy Holt).
The movie, from a script by Ed Solomon, involves an immensely complicated tangle of overlapping and intertwining plots and characters, schemes and deceptions, desires and needs, stories and backstories. It’s a miniseries’ worth of action that’s crammed into the procrustean bounds of a near-two-hour feature, without the compensating dimensions of symbol and implication. The movie depends on a narrative shell game that withholds crucial information in the interest of stoking suspense, conjuring mystery, foregrounding visible action, and keeping a rapid pace. Soderbergh displays no interest in the characters’ experience, knowledge, and perspectives. Rather, they’re reduced to their roles in the plot, becoming pieces in a chess game that Soderbergh is playing for fun while nonetheless proclaiming, in the emblazoned themes of the adventure, a grander significance.
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The prime delight of the movie lies in its styles: the architecture, the interior design, the clothing, the hair, the makeup, the soaring public spaces of corporate lobbies and grand hotels, the busy public life, the heftily decorative cars of curvy sheet metal, high-gloss finishes, and plush upholstery. These are all realized with bold, sharp lines; exquisite nuance; and a dynamic sense of form and color in the production design, by Hannah Beachler, and the costume design, by Marci Rodgers. It’s the movie’s physical element that, above all, accounts for its tingly charm, because Soderbergh’s direction is, at its best, physical to match. As usual, he does his own camerawork (credited as Peter Andrews) and editing (as Mary Ann Bernard), and he invests the film with a mighty swing and verve—eye-catchingly wide-angled and off-kilter framings, scenes edited with a tweaked blend of reason and fancy, a dramatic efficiency that guides the eye as much with pleasure as with logic, and which graphically frames the actors’ sharp gestures.
Some of the film’s performances are merely peculiar and others merely apt, but Cheadle is thrilling, with coiled strength and a perspicacious gaze that seems to realize ideas in motion. (One moment I haven’t stopped thinking about involves his sharing of a stolen item with Ronald; it’s filmed in two quick shots, the first showing rapid buildup and the second the decisive deed). Del Toro is stolid and poignant as an overreaching underling, Duke awe-inspiring as a mastermind with a grand manner and a core of principle, and Matt Damon comes in for an archly grandiloquent turn as a shadowy string-puller. The roles of women in the criminal affairs in question are minimal, and the roles of the movie’s actresses are accordingly diminished. Yet the movie emphasizes the power that they deploy from the margins—and Shaw, Seimetz, and, Julia Fox (as Vanessa Capelli, Frank’s wife) all catch, in keenly focussed phrases and decisive, simple actions, the desperate efforts to wrench an element of control from their subordination.
Soderbergh revels in idiosyncratic details of minor consequence, such as a killer who displays a craving for French fries, a criminal who relieves himself of the discomfort of wearing a mask by tossing a blanket over a hostage’s head, and an intruder who repeatedly announces his plan to punch a victim before doing so. The film’s script is knowing, filled with pointed details of crime, such as the notion that criminals virtually announce their intention not to kill their hostages by wearing masks (the unmasked need fear no testimony from the dead), or the the way armed cohorts signal to initiate an ambush in a public setting. The latter scene, an action set piece, is a mighty work of criminal organization, but its fascinating maneuvers are left offscreen and dispatched in a single line of dialogue, and the omission is an emblematic one. Soderbergh is less concerned with seeing than with showing; his drama fits together with a jigsaw precision and, rather than looking through the gaps or outside the borders, he merely slots the picture in, piece by piece, to tantalize viewers as its connections emerge. Soderbergh’s pictorial and kinetic inspirations, far from coalescing with the story (as they do in his best movies), merely package it.
The movie brings out its major thematic elements—the ambient racism and racial tensions in the city, and the automobile industry’s brazen indifference to its effect on the environment—only as motives to key events and key scenes; they remain undiscussed, unexplored, and unconsidered, even when they’re in the forefront of characters’ thought. The city’s racial politics emerge in a handful of tossed-off details: casually racist insults and gestures (such as Ronald wiping a car seat where Curt had been sitting); a reference to redlining; Curt’s mention of urban renewal, which prompts another Black man’s sardonic response, “Negro removal”; and the subplot of Curt’s effort to recover his plot of land (a vital bit of backstory that nonetheless remains entirely vague). But there’s no contextual interweave in the film, no expansion of form in the interest of an expansion of substance. The flip approach to major ideas serves, above all, as a cautionary view of the period styles that give the movie its prime visual identity. At the very end, a title card additionally serves to dispel the movie’s overriding mood of nostalgia, but the clever kick—after the fact—only points back ruefully at all that lies unexamined in what came before.
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Richard Brody began writing for The New Yorker in 1999. He writes about movies in his blog, The Front Row. He is the author of “Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard.”
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