Steven Soderbergh is one fascinating human. From the moment he arrived on the scene, with the audaciously titled Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989), he’s established himself as a director willing to dive into any topic or any genre. When your debut feature is about the delicate balance between sex, compatibility, and shared trauma, it’s not a surprise when your filmography morphs into an incredible spectrum of human interests stories mixed with the occasional genre fare. From Out of Sight to The Informant to Ocean’s Eleven, Soderbergh has lived the life of a chameleon, one where you can never guess what his next move will be. This is the man who filmed a horror movie, Unsane, on an iPhone because why fucking not?!
So what does a Steven Soderbergh look like in the streaming age? Well, two years ago he directed The Laundromat. The Netflix release, starring Meryl Streep, was a repudiation of insurance companies, hedge funds, tax evasion, and the act of corporate money buying political power. In that vein, Soderbergh’s newest, No Sudden Move, is the cousin of those liberal-leaning ideals of The Laundromat. The streaming service has changed, as No Sudden Move pervades HBO Max, but the darts aimed at rampant capitalism remains.
It stars Don Cheadle as Curtis Goynes, a petty criminal in 1950s Detroit who is recruited by the mysterious Doug Jones (Brendan Fraser) to execute a seemingly simple extortion plot. It’s so simple that Curt wonders if there’s a catch, or if he’s being coerced by a ruthless acquaintance by the name of Frank Capelli (Ray Liotta). Doug introduces Ronald (Benicio del Toro) as Curt’s accomplice in the mission, but Curt and Ronald’s antennas go up when they realize they both have an unfavorable history with Capelli. In fact, we learn they’ve both betrayed the unseen crime lord. Once the extortion attempt is underway, nothing is as it seems or goes as planned. Curt and Ronald soon learn that what’s happening around them is much bigger than their interpersonal struggles, as they’re embroiled in a massive conspiracy that is shielding the public from the knowledge of climate change.
Soderbergh’s filmography of the last ten years, including movies like Magic Mike and Logan Lucky, has been greatly concerned with the perspective of the working class. Here, Curt is the avatar for that viewpoint, as his motivations paint him as a combatant for the racially discriminating practice of redlining. But his journey leads him to an encounter with a tycoon that acts as the face of capitalistic callousness. This is the point where the movie stops to explain that the rich are so far ahead in the game, that any minor setback for them is as simple as regenerating a lost limb like an invincible alien.
This all makes Soderbergh’s statement on the matter clear, but is it enthralling? Divorced from the political themes, the film is well acted, with strong leads as well interesting turns from Fraser, Julia Fox, Bill Duke, David Harbour, and the unsung hero known as Amy Seimetz, who plays the housewife of the family targeted in this scheme. But she proves to have bigger balls than her wimpish husband. The movie’s design is slick but familiar, casually and effortless capturing Midwestern urban architecture, with its square-ish assembly line of houses and apartment complexes. It’s a working class movie, one that combines grit with sophistication.
No Sudden Move acts as a damnation of both capitalism and climate change. But the film’s thesis is that these two themes are inevitably linked. The structures that fuel capitalism, short-sighted ambitions and greed, are what have led to climate change, the movie argues. What are we to take from the reality that Soderbergh decided to depict two prevalent conflicts of present day, but dramatize it in a period piece? Is this meant to act merely as informative, or is this the director throwing his hands up and admitting those issues are too far gone due to actions that were made before many of us were even alive?
In the film’s final scene, a key character realizes the fruitful ending they were hoping for has been obliterated. However, they do come away from the ordeal with a small reward. It is a sobering reminder of just how savagely life runs us through the spin cycle. Many of us will have goals that attempt to satisfy our desires, until we realize we were just cogs in the wheel of someone else’s scheme. It’s apropos that the director of Ocean’s Eleven, a movie that exemplifies the power fantasy inherit in heist films, has decided to give us the authentic crime caper.
But does this commitment towards “telling it like it is” remove the enjoyment from the movie? In retrospect, I can’t say I cared for any of the characters, nor are their motivations particularly compelling. These are watered down archetypes that we’ve seen in crime films before – the ambitious redeemer who only needs to do one more job, the scandalous lovers hiding an affair, and the crime boss who may or may not be oblivious to that affair. You fill in the blanks that the movie can’t, other than the occasional expository line, because you’ve seen it before. Even the film’s attempts to “turn the tables”, by showing a character get one over on their significant others in a way you seldom see in these movies, is met with lukewarm surprise when it’s surrounded by a half-dozen other 3rd act reversals that rely on the same subversion of expectations.
The reality is, the personal stakes are drowned out by the global stakes of the political commentary, creating a bewildering experience that makes you unsure who you should care about, or what you should take from this message served to you by the multimedia conglomerate that owns HBO Max. I have no doubts that Soderbergh believes in his story. But the corporate mechanisms he must traverse to bring this story to you puts a cynical glow over the entire enterprise. On the one hand, Time Warner is allowing the public to learn a reimagined piece of history about greed and corporate obfuscation of the news. On the other hand, the movie’s chief villain mocks the protagonists for believing this abuse of power is anything but inevitable. This may be an illuminating exercise, but I can’t say it’s a worthwhile experience. I don’t dislike Soderbergh’s recent foray into class struggle, I even enjoy it to an extent. But I do believe the scale is tipping away from dramatized storytelling, into verbose explanations of capitalism run amok, although at least Soderbergh tones it down from the loquacious The Laundromat. However, for the sake of the drama, sometimes the subtext should remain subtext.