Though he hopscotches across genre boundaries from production to production, bending his aesthetic with startling and intuitive ease, Steven Soderbergh is consistently concerned with the ethos of professionalism—with the riddles of playing a rigged capitalist game in a way that allows you to live with yourself. This preoccupation unites films as seemingly disparate as The Limey and High Flying Bird with Erin Brockovich and Let Them All Talk, and it courses through Soderbergh’s new crime thriller, No Sudden Move, which mixes an old-school 1950s noir with a modern sense of social self-consciousness.
In 1954, a middle-aged black ex-con, Curt Goynes (Don Cheadle), walks down a gray and lonely Detroit street to the beat of David Holmes’s funky jazz-inflected score. It’s the kind of stylish sequence that Soderbergh can seemingly pull out of a hat on demand. One of the pleasures of Soderbergh’s work is that he’s an auteur who takes pop cinema as seriously as its “art film” counterpart, recognizing them as cojoined. In fact, his lo-fi formalist productions only seem to heighten his grasp of the manipulations inherent to fashioning good crowd-pleasers.
Curt meets with a friend, Jimmy (Craig muMs Grant), in a room hidden at the back of the latter’s barbershop, and is directed to go meet with a white man sitting outside in a car. No Sudden Move’s governing motif is set up in this brief sequence, as the coexistence between visible society and the underworld hidden in plain sight is emphasized as a system of obfuscation that depends on the utilization of endless middle men looking out for their own interests. Soderbergh and screenwriter Ed Solomon understand—sometimes a bit too much for their own good—how the crime genre often operates as a fable of everyday self-absorption. In short, we’re so busy trying to pay our own bills that we tolerate the fact that the rich control the oscillations of the government. While none of this subtext is new to the genre, Soderbergh and Solomon take the idea of the “middle man” to satirically intricate heights.
In the car behind the barbershop is the imposing Doug Jones (Brendan Fraser), a heavy-set man who offers Curt proposal that feels too good and too easy to be true. Along with another recruit, Ronald Russo (Benicio Del Toro), Curt is to “babysit” a family in their home at gunpoint while another conspirator, Charley (Kieran Culkin), escorts the head of the family, GM accountant Matt Wertz (David Harbour), to his office to retrieve a mysterious document. For this task, Curt is to receive five grand, but the scheme is riven with complications before it’s even launched. These various men distrust and resent one another, with Curt’s never-entirely-elucidated experience with various crime lords casting a shadow over the negotiations. This history also includes Curt’s past imprisonment and loss of land to the city’s racist gentrification projects, which is to say that No Sudden Move follows the crime-film tradition of drawing parallels between the ways of the mob and the ways of government and big business, showing how the organizations’ respective tentacles overlap.
This involved setup is but a blip in the film’s byzantine plot. The hostage situation—executed by Soderbergh with an intimate, hair-trigger finesse that evokes William Wyler’s The Desperate Hours—leads to carnage and a series of negotiations in which Curt, with Ronald in tow, seeks to exert his own brand of free enterprise. The resonant joke at work here is that Curt has to keep reaching higher to find the true man in charge, as the criminal world mirrors the corporate sphere, with departments that exist with only an illusion of autonomy.
Attempting to make the underworld adhere to a rudimentary concept of honor among thieves (that is, pull a scam and get paid for it), Curt discovers its insidious resemblance to the warped machinations governing “polite” society. Subsequently, No Sudden Move splinters into many small and pulpy tangential stories that exist among and within one another like nesting dolls, with a litany of bent lawmen, cuckholds, merciless CEOs, duplicitous femme fatales, and hapless patsies forming an intricate latticework of American corruption. In this context, Curt and Ronald resemble freelancers trying to gain some measure of security.
More pleasurable than No Sudden Move’s intricate narrative structure, which grows tiresome despite Soderbergh’s finesse, is its visual texture and tempo. The film is all canted-angle shots that relish period automobiles, attire, and cavernous lairs, which Soderbergh imbues with a remarkable sense of intimacy via gritty lighting and the underplaying of his actors, who expertly throw away Solomon’s terrific one-liners. Like much of the director’s work, No Sudden Move is a piece of high style, a cooler-than-cool pastiche, with a dollop of soul, that only he is currently capable of fashioning. As in other Soderbergh films, though, the hipness sometimes keeps us at a remove, inviting us to savor what we’re seeing intellectually as an art object rather than as a living and breathing thriller. At times, you may find yourself wishing for the pace of the character roundelay to slow so that we can savor individual encounters.
There are, though, a wealth of subtle details that affirm how little we know about this world, suggesting how much experience exists beyond the plot. The racial tensions between Curt and Ronald are often established on an almost subliminal level, with small, pointed gestures that speak louder than, say, the screenwriter’s sermon near the film’s end that’s delivered by a famous actor in a surprise cameo. Elsewhere, Ronald’s alcoholism—he drinks in every scene and carries himself with a bloated, benumbed air that’s funny, poignant and terrifying—is also allowed to exist without overt comment, and leads to No Sudden Move’s most haunting scene.
Used to being a loser, adrift like many WWII veterans in the ’50s, Ronald thinks for a moment that something has “broke his way” and his eyes light up with a zeal that suggests Humphrey Bogart’s Fred C. Dobbs at the height of his lunacy in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Ronald hugs a sea of cash on a bed, cigar poking out of his twisted mouth, his drowned longings floating to the surface. It’s such a piercing, memorable display because Soderbergh temporarily abandons the film’s carefully cultivated, one-thing-after-another architecture to allow a superb actor to channel his character’s demons, abandoning chicly detached gestures for daringly naked and ludicrous expressions of need. Such a sequence, and there a few others in No Sudden Move, cuts to the heart of how social inadequacies can pollute the soul.