I never tire of watching Steven Soderbergh play around with celebrities and camera tech. It’s like babysitting a little kid who’s toying around in a playroom where each dolly & gadget cost millions of dollars. I usually prefer to see Soderbergh’s playtime sessions projected on the big screen, and I like them best when they overlap with genres I’m already in love with – which is to say that it’s going to be hard to top the experience of seeing his iPhone-shot psych horror Unsane at the shopping mall multiplex. Still, it’s been continually fun to watch a long-established director who’s remained excited by his job fuck around with Prestige Cable TV money as if he’s still figuring out the basic elements & limitations of his medium.
The big-picture details of Soderbergh’s latest direct-to-cable effort, No Sudden Move, sound like they belong to the pilot episode of a standard-issue HBO crime drama series. Don Cheadle, Benicio Del Toro, and Kieran Culkin star as three low-level lackeys who’re hired to hold a business man’s family hostage in exchange for a confidential document of great political import. The job goes horrifically wrong, and the bottom-rung gangsters find themselves scheming across 1950s Detroit to hold onto the top-secret document as a bargaining chip for their lives . . . and an exponential amount of cash. It’s a standard heist-gone-wrong plot, styled like a spin-off series about the crime-world decades following Boardwalk Empire. And yet, it never feels boring or unsurprising thanks to Soderbergh’s flair for wryly funny stunt casting and behind-the-camera mischief.
The biggest hurdle most audiences have to clear to enjoy No Sudden Move is how absolutely fucking bizarre it looks. While the set & costume design resemble the usual HBO crime series, Soderbergh shoots the entire movie with an extreme wide-angle fisheye lens, often backlit. Whenever your eye momentarily adjusts to its skateboard video framing and chiaroscuro lighting, the camera pans or glides to make the whole thing look warped again. I have to imagine it has a lot of unsuspecting audiences scrambling to adjust the picture settings on their TV, but I was personally delighted by that clash of modern camera tech against a vintage setting. When the cowardly businessman mark, played by David Harbour, complains into a telephone “Everything is so weird right now” I felt like I knew exactly what he meant. The film never stops looking strange, even if it’s narratively well behaved.
Beyond that extreme fisheye effect, I was mostly just tickled by No Sudden Move’s casting choices. From the winking, referential casting of Jon Hamm in Mad Men-style G-man suits and Ray Liotta in pistol-whipped Goodfellas mobster mode to the chaotic screen presence of Uncut Gems’s Julia Fox as a bored, pouty moll (recalling Paz de la Huerta in the Boardwalk Empire pilot, come to think of it), you can tell Soderbergh and casting director Carmen Cuba are having a ball. Otherwise, I can’t say the film really did much for me, at least not as much as the campier, more acidic Behind the Candelabra – the most recent example I’ve seen of Soderbergh playing around in HBO’s toy chest. If these same fisheye lens or movie star stunt casting experiments had been applied to something more my speed—like a morally queasy horror movie or something draggy like Liberace—I could have fully fallen in love with it. Knowing Soderbergh, I’ll probably only have to wait a few weeks before that next experiment in craft arrives.