No Sudden Move is currently streaming on HBO Max.
By Palmer Rubin
Steven Soderbergh moves to the beat of his own drum, anything and everything else be damned. This has worked about as often as it’s failed, and if you’re familiar with him, your list of favorites is probably different than everyone else’s.
A lot of people have been put off by the weird moves he’s been making, futzing with iPhone cameras and making weird limited series when he’s not off on a mid-budget crime picture. The man works so often that there’s a veritable glut of goodies to choose from. No Sudden Move has no interest in reinventing the wheel, it just wants to have all the double-crosses and cynicism your noir-loving heart could desire. The cast is uniformly excellent (not just reliable heavy-hitters like Don Cheadle and Benicio Del Toro, we’re also talking Brendan Fraser playing completely against type and Julia Fox making a lot from a little), the strange fisheye lens makes you feel like a voyeur. You’re just soaking in the guts and bile of a failed state. Good noir.
I don’t always like late-period Soderbergh, but I can’t ever claim the man isn’t making swings other filmmakers largely aren’t. Soderbergh wants a mid-budget crime picture when studios are allergic to anything not coated in spandex? Soderbergh gets his mid-budget crime picture. Soderbergh became the system the way any indie sensation by way of Cannes became one. But he mutated and adapted, finding a bubble where he could largely do anything he wanted off of the mountains of goodwill he’s built up as a moneymaker.
So what we have is Cheadle and Del Toro in an infinite loop of double-crosses, so many you forget who is betraying who, fighting over what essentially becomes the table scraps of an unbeatable financial system. No Sudden Move is interesting because it features the motions we’re all familiar with in noir films, but completely and tonally empty. Yes, a family is held hostage by crooks, and of course the alliances of everyone involved is in question. Cheadle, Del Toro and Kieran Culkin hold David Harbour and Amy Seimetz’s family hostage. Harbour’s character has access to something they’re being paid to retrieve. Multiple factions want that something. Shenanigans ensue. Everyone is after everybody. On and on and on, and that’s an interesting angle to take well-trod territory. You’ve seen it all before, you haven’t seen it in abstraction. The crooked cop, one man in a crooked force, hands back the table scraps that are several hundred thousand dollars to the man who’s bribing him and what does he get for a string of cold-blooded murders? He gets a bottle of liquor, an eager lapdog ready to serve. The police serving the state and nothing more, succinctly put. It’s good shit, blackly humorous shit. It’s as close to a post-modern Ned Beatty (RIP) in Network that we’re gonna get. This character has a similar monologue to that film as he taunts Cheadle and Del Toro about how he knows he’ll get his money back with interest by the time the slaughter is over, and he won’t have to raise a finger. “I didn’t make the river, I just row down it,” he says after an honest accusation. He’s not lying, but he’s not choosing to dam up the river either. I’m being intentionally vague, but there’s enough genuine surprises here that I think that vagueness is justified.
It justifies all the bravado and how empty it all turns out to be. We’re all just projecting strength we don’t have. We all serve at the foot of Capital here, and Soderbergh isn’t really trying to make any point we haven’t already heard. It’s refreshing to hear it without a soapbox though, harkening back to films like Detour or The Third Man or Ace in the Hole and all the post-World War malaise that came with it. We haven’t had genuine slime in our noir in a while, and Soderbergh wants lots of it. Given that it largely has a similar plot as Shane Black’s The Nice Guys (that is neo-noir as comedy, this is neo-noir as nihilism), it just speaks to the feeling of powerlessness the best noir always invokes. The hostage sequence that’s not a spoiler to spoil has the family forced into their morning routine at gunpoint to prevent the neighbors from getting spooked. That’s Soderbergh in full Coen Brothers dramatic irony. He’s never made that swing before, I hope he does more of it. Serving as director, DP and editor (with stage names galore), the thing is lensed in far brighter colors than we’re used to seeing in a noir picture. And damned if Soderbergh doesn’t capture the particular vibe of a film made in the 1970s, set in the 1950s. That’s as close to someone like Sidney Lumet as I can think of. It’s a tough picture to nail down, but I fell for it. I hope you do too. At least watch for Brendan Fraser and Julia Fox (both given little screen time but absolutely kill it). The former deserved so much more of a career than he got and I hope the latter, after dominating in Uncut Gems and this, is given more to do. Special mention goes to the incomparable Bill Duke for always being able to command the screen with a single sharp look. He was the highlight of Soderbergh’s High Flying Bird and he soars here too in a cameo. But the entire cast absolutely knocks it out of the park here. That being said, if not for some of its meandering subplots and a bit too much fluff, this would be one for the books. The only thing really wrong with it is its tendency to sometimes meander in scenes when it should have momentum. That didn’t count me out.
So I dunno, this is good stuff overall in spite of that caveat. You won’t be disappointed.
I give No Sudden Move a B+.