Steven Soderbergh’s Mosaic was conceived as a mobile app in which viewers get to explore a murder mystery at their own pace. But no matter how you choose to parse the multiple timelines and readable documents, the premise remains the same. In Summit, Utah, a renowned children’s book author, Olivia Lake (Sharon Stone), disappears on New Year’s Eve. Evidence points to murder, including a bloody hammer and footprints leading away from the cabin on her enviable property. Olivia’s fiancée, Eric Neill (Frederick Weller), is jailed for the killing after making a plea bargain, but four years later Olivia’s body surfaces in a local creek and threatens to reveal a conspiracy. App users can navigate the narrative from the point of view of Eric or another suspect, Joel (Garrett Hedlund), a handyman on Olivia’s property who started out as a potential lover and pupil of the author. The app’s points of view multiply, offering a broadening mosaic of corruption and longing.
Recut as a six-episode miniseries for HBO, Mosaic offers a ghostly outline of the app’s narrative malleability. Soderbergh splits his focus between multiple protagonists, his fluid editing so seemingly casual throughout as to deemphasize the complexity of the show’s construction. Early portions of the series detail Eric and Olivia’s meeting, which occurs under false pretenses, and later segments toggle between Joel, Summit detective Nate Henry (Devin Ratray), and Eric’s estranged sister, Petra (Jennifer Ferrin), who initiates an amateur investigation to exonerate her brother.
The frequent and abrupt shift in focus between characters quickly attains an existential dimension, as any singular narrative that’s seemingly important one moment is nearly forgotten by the next. And while the series eventually answers the question of who killed Olivia, another plausible explanation for her demise is dropped midstream, leaving us with a nagging feeling of futility and irresolution. Soderbergh understands that a good murder mystery uses its riddles as pretenses for rendering communities that are revealed to be built on intricate and not-entirely-coherent nests of collusion and exploitation. Summit is a mineral town, with a political infrastructure erected on old money up in the mountains, and the inhabitants of those mountains will do whatever it takes to maintain the classist status quo.
As he did in films such as The Limey and Side Effects, Soderbergh fashions found and abstract poetry out of the hard lines of the lairs of the rich and famous. His formalism suggests a wonderfully unlikely fusion of the films of Robert Bresson and Michelangelo Antonioni with lurid noir. At one point, when Petra approaches the cabin of a potential big bad, a wooded wall is seen behind her, jutting out of the wilderness like a huge splinter, stimulating the eye while suggesting a primordial violation of the land.
The interplay of light in Mosaic also ranks among Soderbergh’s great formal achievements. The jail imprisoning Eric is bathed in terrifying whiteness that threatens to obscure his face, seemingly subsuming him into its banally bureaucratic fabric. Rarefied lairs are informed with dark, warm, and pretty yet ineffably malevolent textures, while local bars are lit so as to be cozily yet stiflingly comfortable, with the hard illumination of coolers intruding on the sensual hues of the tables and booths. These gorgeous and evocative images belong distinctively to Soderbergh, capturing various settings with docudramatic intimacy while subjectively heightening them.
There are few over-the-shoulder shots of characters talking in Mosaic; instead, the protagonists often approach the screen toward us, informing the series with a sense of verticality, rather than of the horizontality that dominates the framing of most cinema and television. And this deviation from aesthetic tradition informs the series with yet another dimension of immediacy and instability, while perhaps belying the project’s roots as something to be watched on a mobile device. Soderbergh understands that he must grab us in this century of endless distraction, and his efforts to hold our attention parallel the characters’ attempts to corral chaos into a functional narrative. In the guise of mounting a murder mystery, the filmmaker attempts to push narrative out of a classical three-act format. Mosaic’s episodes could be watched in any order and they’d still have a dizzying emotional and intellectual effect, suggesting less what we know than what we don’t. Tellingly, Olivia’s most famous book can be read both backward and forward.
Such complexity extends to the relational webs existing between the characters. Soderbergh’s reputation as a chilly auteur who’s more infatuated with theory than behavior has often been overstated. There’s little of the numbing, script-heavy exposition in Mosaic that lards most TV shows, allowing the actors to fashion strikingly specific and stylish performances, defining characters by their habits and environments rather than by the mandates of signifying dialogue. Soderbergh provides resonant snapshots of the characters, boiling decades of history into glances and absurdist asides: Nate questions suspects who he’s long known, peppering his inquiries with words such as “dude” as he tries to lace his authority with friendliness; and everyone butchers the word “literally” in an ongoing joke that affirms Mosaic’s obsession with the speed of evolving culture in the modern age.
Soderbergh suggests a mammoth world that exists beyond his rigorously structured narrative, as every textured shot and stray bit of humor hints at the wild humanity existing under the controlled institutions and mannerisms that we collectively call society. When Petra defends pointillism to Olivia, who insists that emotion trumps technique, we can feel Soderbergh nodding in agreement with the former. In a master’s hands, technique is emotion.