Steven Soderbergh is back, baby.
Well, he’s been back for quite a while, but let me explain. After a brief hiatus that he called a retirement in 2013 following the release of Behind the Candelabra, Soderbergh quickly made his return with Logan Lucky (Ocean’s Seven-Eleven if you’re nasty), a return to the heist genre that made him a mainstream success back in the early 2000s. Since then Soderbergh’s output has been more varied than ever: a horror film and a basketball business drama both shot on iPhones, an experimental anthology about money laundering, and a family drama shot aboard a cruise ship. No Sudden Move is perhaps the most conventional film Soderbergh has made since his break from filmmaking, but is no less filled with his unique charm.
To describe the plot at all is to give too much away, so I’ll just give you the hook: three criminals get hired to steal some documents and find that the job is much larger than they were led to believe. After taking a babysitting job and escorting an employee to his workplace to extract the target item, things quickly go south. The machinations of this scheme, down to the very documents being stolen, are muddied through layers of power structures and ulterior motives. No Sudden Move plays out more like The Maltese Falcon than any of the Ocean’s films, a formidable showcase of both style and performance. Most of the film is shot with natural lighting and a fisheye lens so warped that faces on the edge of the frames begin to shift as the corners are rounded out with shadows. Many character tropes of noir are here: the femme fatale, the questionably dirty cop, and a guy who’s literally named Mr. Big. The cast is also Soderbergh’s biggest in a long time, with central players Don Cheadle and Benicio del Toro sharing the role of protagonist as both of their characters try to figure out exactly what they’ve been asked to secure. The supporting cast is too dense to name, but special praise must be given to boss hog Bill Duke, and Brendan Fraser, who hasn’t missed a beat since his own hiatus from acting.
The setting of No Sudden Move is critical to its separation from Soderbergh’s previous crime films: that of 1950s Detroit. A time defined both by rapid industrialization and racial tensions across the country. We see this manifested in various ways throughout the film. Our two leads are paid different wages for the same opportunity, and that’s only the beginning of the divide that the audience sees. It’s never made into explicit commentary outside of the film and rarely commented on by the characters, who are so ingrained in their world that this isn’t unusual or even worth discussing. The same can be said for the film’s underlying narrative of corporate corruption and dimensions of personal and political interest held by people across the spectrum of both race and class.
As usual, Soderbergh’s flair for subtle character writing is present. We open with Benicio del Toro’s character Ronald after a dangerous liaison with Vanessa Capelli (Julia Fox), a woman whose husband is an important figure in the Detroit crime circles. They discuss the husband in passing, and we aren’t even introduced to the character for another hour. During the extraction of the document, seemingly ordinary employee Matt (David Harbour) suddenly runs into a woman he is having an affair with, and her role in the conspiracy is slowly peeled back as the film goes along as well. All of these relationships are important to the story, but they are introduced in a way that feels like window dressing, similar to the way Soderbergh uses Linus Caldwell’s parents throughout the Ocean’s trilogy. Don Cheadle’s character Curt laments throughout the film that he only wants what was taken from him, and it takes most of the runtime for the audience to fully understand and empathize with what that means.
Similar to The Laundromat, No Sudden Move is a genre film disguised as a tale of lasting corporate misbehavior and greed. This handles it much more carefully than The Laundromat—the film doesn’t stop for Meryl Streep to break character and explain the movie to you, after all—it works because all of the characters are directly impacted by the world around them. Well, almost all of them, but even the exception of a man like Mr. Big proves the rule. It’s not really appropriate to call this a return to form for Soderbergh—as his appeal to me is that his filmography has little consistency in terms of genre or how seriously any of it is taking itself—but No Sudden Move is my favorite of his post-hiatus films so far. It looks like he has developed a good relationship with the people at Warner Bros and the HBO Max release strategy following this and Let Them All Talk (his next film is set to head there too), so fans of the enigmatic filmmaker and all of his consistently unpredictable output will have this to appreciate and hopefully a lot more to look forward to.
B+ Review 2021 behind the candelabra benicio del toro bill duke brendan fraser david harbour don cheadle julia fox let them all talk logan lucky no sudden move oceans trilogy steven soderbergh the laundromat the maltese falcon