I don’t always like Steven Soderbergh’s movies, but I hold him in extremely high respect. His work is wildly uneven, but that’s the downside to such a wildly unpredictable filmmaker. How could anyone possibly look at Erin Brockovich, Magic Mike, Contagion, and The Girlfriend Experience and conclude that they were all made by the same guy?
There’s never any telling what Soderbergh’s next move will be, and I can’t help but admire that. Hell, given Soderbergh’s notorious predilection for pseudonyms and secrets, we often don’t even know who’s working on his films half the time! It’s gotten to the point where I’ve basically given up on trying to follow Soderbergh’s career, which is likely how I damn near made the terrible mistake of sleeping on No Sudden Move.
Our stage is set in Detroit during the 1950s. The premise begins with Doug Jones (Brendan Fraser) who supposedly works for some anonymous upstart Chicago crime syndicate looking to gain a foothold in Detroit. Jones is sent out to hire three hitmen: Curt (Don Cheadle), Ronald (Benicio del Toro), and Charley (Kieran Culkin). The three of them are paid several thousands of dollars up front for three hours of work, with the promise of thousands more upon the job’s completion.
The job? The three of them will break into the house of Matt Wertz (David Harbour) while everyone is still at home. Charley will escort Matt to his office, where Matt will take something from his boss’ safe and bring it back to his house. Meanwhile, Curt and Ronald will hold Matt’s family hostage to make sure that nobody raises any suspicions and Matt does as he’s told.
At this point, you may have already noticed a few unusual details about this job, to say nothing about the details and questions that are unclear. And because this is a crime movie in which the heist happens during the first act, you might further expect things to go wrong.
Without getting too deep into spoilers, things do indeed go wrong. They go massively, catastrophically wrong. At least a dozen shitty types of wrong. Our core team of hitmen have to spend the rest of the film trying to figure out if everything got fucked up by accident, or if all the mistakes were intentional and they’re being set up, that’s how far wrong everything goes.
There’s so much going on with this movie, I don’t even know where to begin. The film is two hours long, and there’s not an ounce of fat anywhere. Every shot conveys some new piece of exposition, some new plot twist. This is one of those blessed and magnificent movies in which I can look at the last scene, then look back at the first scene, and marvel at how the almighty fuck we got from Point A to Point B.
Of course I don’t want to get too deep into the weeds about what’s going on, but suffice to say the film is set in Detroit for a great many implicit reasons. Not only is it the poster child for crippling economic depression, but it’s also the capital of USA’s automotive industry, home to several multinational conglomerates that have been corrupting politics and willfully destroying the environment for decades. Moreover, the film was set in the 1950s, when the earliest seeds of the Civil Rights Movement were being sown. (To wit: Emmett Till was murdered in 1955.)
And here we have Don Cheadle in the role of a black hitman trying to fleece wealthy white assholes for all they’re worth, as retribution for how he got fucked over for taking a job. While he’s also making them pay for all the various ways that white people have fucked over black people, and the wealthy have fucked over the poor. This is a (possibly) Quixotic attempt at race/class warfare, and it’s an open question as to whether he’ll die trying and how many will go down with him.
All of this adds a whole new dimension to the classic themes of the crime thriller, ie: The futile struggle against an amoral and unfair system, the question of how to live a good life when nobody seems to ever succeed without breaking the rules, knowing when to walk away before one is destroyed by their own greed, etc. This is really where the Curt/Ronald dynamic sizzles, as the white man and the black man both try to keep each other from screwing each other over while they deliberate about when to take the money and walk.
Even better, there’s the matter of Matt Wertz. Here’s a middle-class white guy with your typical nuclear family, and he gets caught in the middle of all the different conflicts going on. Not that he’s entirely innocent, of course — we learn early on that he’s banging his boss’ secretary on the side (Paula, played by Frankie Shaw) — and there is a kind of justice in seeing Wertz deal with the consequences of his own actions. But we also have to watch him suffer the consequences of others’ actions that he had nothing to do with, and his family (played by Amy Seimetz, Noah Jupe, and Lucy Holt) has to suffer right along with him through no fault of their own. It all takes on a kind of darkly comical vibe, in an absurd kind of way.
And upon consideration of the fact that the wealthy white motherfuckers face no consequences whatsoever for their actions, it’s all the more infuriating.
Speaking of which, Jon Hamm is on hand to play the detective tasked with investigating the shenanigans of the plot. He’s a decent detective who does his job well and plays by the book. Which is to say that he’s in place to maintain the status quo and make sure the wealthy stay rich while people of color stay poor. Not that he’s actively or even implicitly racist in any way, that’s just the natural consequence of this detective doing his job and enforcing the laws as written!
Elsewhere in the supporting cast, it’s always a big deal when Bill Duke show up. Ray Liotta makes a brief but memorable appearance, because it’s a crime thriller and hiring Ray Liotta was a given. I was thrilled to see Julia Fox get another big feature gig — she showed a lot of potential with her Uncut Gems debut and it’s great to see her build on that potential here. Also, Matt Damon appears to steal the show in the third act, and that’s all I’m saying about that.
The performances are all solid, but some were stronger than others. In particular, after Honey Boy, I know for a fact that Noah Jupe is better than this and I was disappointed to see him so underutilized. Likewise, though Kieran Culkin absolutely made an impression, I’m sorry he didn’t get more to do. Elsewhere, while Amy Seimetz’ performace certainly wasn’t bad by any stretch, I don’t know if it was as strong as it maybe should’ve been. That’s a tough needle to thread with the character, and she didn’t quite nail it.
Then we have Steven Soderbergh himself. While his skill as a director is on full display here, I often found myself distracted by the “fish-eye lens” photography that blurred around the edges of many shots. It’s not exactly a dealbreaker, but I’m not exactly clear on that particular stylistic choice.
Of course, all of these are mere nitpicks. For every shaky performance, there’s at least two or three phenomenal turns from the likes of Don Cheadle, Benicio del Toro, and David Harbour. While I don’t agree with all of Soderbergh’s cinematography choices, he did a marvelous job of sorting so many storylines into a streamlined, compelling, coherent pulp thriller. And of course, the screenwriter deserves just as much credit for… actually, who did write this movie?
*checks IMDb* Ed Solomon. Is that one of Soderbergh’s pseudonyms? No, that name definitely sounds familiar, I’m sure I’ve heard it before. Where do I know that name?
…Oh yeah, he co-wrote the first Men in Black film. And the Charlie’s Angels (2000) reboot. And both of the Now You See Me films. And he… wait, this can’t be right. No way could this be the same guy who co-created Bill and Ted. The man who co-wrote and co-produced all three Bill and Ted movies wrote this fucking movie?! How?! Fucking HOW?!
Anyway, No Sudden Move is phenomenal. The plot is sprawling and multifaceted, yet easy to follow and tightly streamlined. There are so many strategically placed reveals and reversals, every moment is crammed with tension down to the last frame. There are so many thematic layers to the film, all presented in such a way that it’s genuinely fun to peel them back without the filmmakers ever spoon-feeding the audience.
This is a movie that makes its audience feel smarter for watching it and following along, and that’s just about the highest compliment I can give for a mystery/crime thriller. Of course, it also helps that the cast and crew are firing on all cylinders, and even the weakest performance is nowhere near bad enough to merit much complaint.
This is easily one of the best films I’ve seen so far this year. Don’t miss out.