Steven Soderbergh makes movies with only one audience in mind: Steven Soderbergh.
The filmmaker behind classics like Erin Brockovich, the Ocean’s Eleven trilogy and Traffic is well into a point in his career where he has a clear vision for what he wants to do, can do it quickly and loves to experiment with the visual form as his own personal art project.
It’s why he can quickly move from shooting a basketball drama on iPhones with High Flying Bird to plot-twisting vignette pieces strung together in The Laundromat to his latest film, a period crime drama that may fly well over the heads of casual audiences but could make ardent cinephiles re-watch over and over again for the little cinematic flourishes.
Three random criminals unfamiliar with each other are hired to “babysit” a blackmail victim and his family, only to see their relatively simple assignment spiral far beyond their control and sink far into the deeps of the underbelly of 1950s Detroit. While it rarely confronts these issues head-on, No Sudden Move reeks with deep-seeded racism and disenfranchisement of the period and larger conspiracy on a national level.
At the center of the film, Don Cheadle is a contemplative force as Curt Goynes, fresh out of prison and in need of quick cash. Although audiences are never truly sure what anyone in the film is thinking, Cheadle allows viewers to see Curt’s mind constantly churning possible scenarios and escape hatches in order to make it through rich and alive.
It’s the least flashy performance in a film filled with characters, yet Cheadle’s constant, steady presence gives the audience something to latch onto as the slow-burn, deliberate narrative moves along.
This is perfectly contrast by a dodgy, controlled mania from mobster-on-the-out Ronald Russo, played by Benicio del Toro. The Usual Suspects star is tailor-made for these sort of crime thrillers as his work often leaves viewers on the edge of their seat in nervous anticipation of what’s to come next as del Toro plays each role so in the moment that there’s genuine surprise as events roll out in real time.
Cheadle and del Toro have choppy chemistry on-screen, but this works in a film where trust is at an intense low and both actors feel like they’re working each other so as not to get worked themselves.
The film boasts a cavalcade of terrific performers littered throughout that give No Sudden Move a distinctly vibrant, character driven feel.
Kieran Culkin is intensely slimy as a criminal ringleader, while Ray Liotta evokes the dark side of his Goodfellas past as an unscrupulous crime boss. Uncut Gems breakout Julia Fox steals scenes as Liotta’s wife who may be cheating with Ronald, while David Harbour gives one of his best performances as the main victim with secrets of his own.
A major cameo left unspoiled here is the perfect jarring awake of the audience that the film needs to ramp things up to its climatic end and the scene featuring the uncredited star is among the most intriguing. Writer Ed Solomon’s terrific screenplay truly comes alive in this moment as a discussion of the randomness of events melds with social context that puts everything that came before into a new light.
Nothing is given or telegraphed to the audience as the plot weaves and winds its way through the narrative. Soderbergh and Solomon make a clear, conscious decision not to let the minutia of over explanation get in the way of driving things forward as the camera follows Curt and Ronald deeper into trouble.
No Sudden Move floats through its two-hour run time thanks to some silky, velvet covered visuals from Soderbergh in conjunction with cinematographer Peter Andrews. Shot with modern cameras equipped with period lenses, most scenes have a fish-eye quality to them that rounds and obscures the view. This pairs exceptionally well with Soderbergh’s high contrast lighting and distinctly off-kilter camera placement that finds the audience looking up from a tilted head at characters or at an almost two-dimensional parallel.
Warner Brothers’ decision to release No Sudden Move in July exclusively on HBO Max pretty much excludes any possibility of an awards season run for the Soderbergh film, which is among the very best of his last decade of work. It’s doubly disappointing not to be able to watch this mid-budget adult drama on the big screen as it’s exactly the kind of film that could draw out moviegoers hoping to make a return to the theater after more than a year away to see a film that isn’t a popcorn franchise film.
No Sudden Move is a low-risk, high-reward offering for cinephiles who will either quickly engage with Soderbergh’s unique perspective or be able to move on to other films without too much commitment thanks to it streaming on HBO Max.