Soderbergh’s newest film marks a delightfully twisty return to his roots
Twists and turns and nasty double-crosses make the handsomely built No Sudden Move a slithering delight. It’s Steven Soderbergh in his favorite sandbox, an underworld of charming crooks with outsized aspirations, and just the kind of milieu that defined career peaks like Out of Sight and the Ocean’s franchise. The twist here is how Ed Solomon’s quietly vicious script gradually raises the stakes with every deadpan remark, as cat-and-mouse hoods try to outwit each other while being just a little too smart for their own good.
The film starts off with a simple errand. Small-time gravelly-voiced goon Curt Goynes (Don Cheadle) accepts a shady babysitting job: Hold a family hostage to force its breadwinner, quietly desperate accountant Matt Wertz (David Harbour), to break into his boss’s company safe and steal some documents. Joining Guynes is pompadoured thug Ronald Russo (Benicio del Toro) and weirdly wired Charley (Kieran Culkin). The job goes sideways, and that’s when the film really gets going. Turns out those documents are a lot more than they seem. And increasingly powerful people take note.
The backdrop is mid-century Detroit, then-capital of the mammoth auto industry and the engine for America’s Eisenhower-era growth. “The country is re-landscaping itself, gentlemen,” a third-act deus ex machina character lectures our intrepid lowlifes. Progress, in the form of the interstate highway system, means the reshaping of more than 100 cities and the demolition of low-income neighborhoods. It’s the way things have to be, racial fissures and all. “Urban renewal?” Curt asks a man from his past. The terse reply: “More like Negro removal.”
Curt is the reason No Sudden Move expands its canvas from just being a snappy neo-noir to making a statement about The State of Things circa 1954. Curt wants to get what he’s owed at a time when black people — and black criminals — are expected to know their place. At one point, ghetto kingpin Aldrick Watkins (Bill Duke) has the chance to reap a fortune. “Too much money,” he says tersely. He knows it would trigger blowback. But Curt isn’t as wise. “Don’t get greedy,” his wary partner Ronald tells him. “I want more,” Curt says.
NO SUDDEN MOVE ★★★★(4/5 stars)
Directed by: Steven Soderbergh
Written by: Ed Solomon
Starring: Don Cheadle, Benicio del Toro, David Harbour, Amy Seimetz, Kieran Culkin, Ray Liotta, Bill Duke, Matt Damon
Running time: 115 min.
This beautifully built low-key thriller delights with every new revelation, especially since it’s those taut moments where the members of its stacked cast really shine. Harbour especially mines unexpected humor out of the most harrowing moments. “Everything is so weird right now,” he says at one point, underlining how quickly the film’s events turn almost surreal. Amy Seimetz makes a feast out of her supporting role as Harbour’s smartly flummoxed, emotionally rattled, ennui-riddled wife. Ray Liotta pops up as a harrowing heavy who winces at his underlings’ ambitions like they’re bug-bites annoyances. Best of all is Matt Damon’s uncredited cameo, dropping matter-of-fact truth bombs in a Ned-Beatty-in-Network monologue that would have made Paddy Chayefsky proud.
That said, there’s a slight overreach in the wide span of the film’s thematic net. As the story slowly arcs from backroom-barbershop whispers to wood-paneled conference room powwows, it reveals a Chinatown-esque sense of the powers that be that never really gets deepened or refined. “You are under the illusion of control,” says one titan as he explains who really pulls the strings in a world where no one truly is a free agent. But the remark feels less ominous than it should, and leads to an ending that’s not so much tragic as much as it is ain’t-that-a-bitch disillusioning. Still, the whole experience is just so smart, surprising, witty, and darkly knowing. Its betrayals are buoyant.