Director Steven Soderbergh and writer Ed Solomon’s “No Sudden Move” is heist-movie chess, a game in which the pieces on the board are compelled to break the rules.
Three men are recruited for a simple job. They are to babysit a family and extort the father to retrieve confidential information from his employer. The go-between recruiter pays a lot of money but refuses to reveal his ‘higher-ups’, the mark, the company being extorted or much of anything else. It doesn’t sound too good to be true; it sounds like it’s a bomb waiting to explode.
Soderbergh is a filmmaker whose technical panache is like a warm blanket. Even in the silences, pauses, and uncertainty navigating writer Soloman’s twisty tale of tipping the scales when the odds are firmly out of your favour, you can’t help but feel comfortable.
When I watch Soderbergh, I continue to be struck at how he feels so singularly distinctive in his approach. It’s not the diorama flourish of Wes Anderson or the near sociopathic manipulation of David Fincher. Instead, Soderbergh’s films feel like they’re contending with your life, a subterranean style. Soderbergh – following the musicality of Soloman’s lyrical script – directs as David Mamet writes, there’s a rhythm and flow that burst with cool but maintain their reality.
Soderbergh shoots “No Sudden Move” on 35mm Panavision C Series Anamorphic Prime Lenses that result in fish-eyed compositions and a trippy motion at the edges of the frame as it moves. I found that it had a strange augmented reality quality. Soderbergh once again takes the reins as cinematographer for “No Sudden Move” (under a pseudonym). Soderbergh, who has frequently dabbled as a cinematographer for his films (“Che”) or his collaborators (“Magic Mike XXL”), can conduct what’s happening in the frame effortlessly.
The camera has a sure-footed quality, selecting a position in the scene to pan around and capture the players in their space. There’s a great use of depth of field, putting characters in the foreground and background of scenes and then letting the camera’s focal length shift sing to create tension in spaces without quick-fire cuts.
David Holmes blues score to accompany the editing (Soderbergh also under a pseudonym) sets the pace and consistently punctuates each story progression with this contradictory certainty and unpredictability. The staging, world bleeding away on the edges of the frame, reinforces the characters’ focus and intent in the film – those with orders and those being ordered.
Don Cheadle’s Curt Goynes is a man on the way out, too intelligent and intuitive to be a good soldier. Cheadle’s Goynes has a ‘protect yourself at all times’ mantra that plays out of step with the orders of his employers. He, perhaps as a product of his jail time, pre-empts the trapdoors in every plan. Cheadle has a formidable quality that makes his actions and reactions seem thought out with many a hypothetical negotiation. When things go wrong, he’s got a play.
Ronald Russo is a pivot from Benicio Del Toro’s signature ferocity to a delicious vanity and neurosis. Russo is a ‘heavy’ typified by his compliance (as outlined in Brendan Fraser’s Doug Jones) recruitment. Yet he drapes himself in suits reminiscent of ‘Guys and Dolls’ and clearly spends a lot of time on the coif. There’s a moment when Russo covers a hostage with a blanket so he can soothe his anxiety by taking off his mask, putting his feet up and pouring a mood stabilising drink that made me howl with laughter.
Kieran Culkin’s Charley is the best kind of soldier. Diminutive, innocent looking and yet downright sociopathic if the job requires. Amy Seimetz and David Harbor play Mary and Matt Wertz, the family heads at the centre of this manipulation. Harbor is a scream, pushed beyond every moral boundary line he’d drawn to maintain his family’s safety. Seimetz, a talented director in her own right, creates a palpable tension because her discomfort and immediate suspicion make you realise that this typical ‘all-American’ family may not be exactly as they seem.
As “No Sudden Moves” progresses, it’s just an array of actors I’d watch reading the phonebook. Fraser is just effortless as the burly and mysterious Jones. Jones calls all the plays to the strength and weaknesses of his pawns. Jon Hamm is the weary-eyed bloodhound Police Detective Joe Finney. When he sees the mysterious manner and the slips in the rehearsed narrative when he encounters the Wertz family, his instincts burst through.
The legendary Bill Duke plays the deadly gangster Aldrick Watkins, desperate to get his hands on the recently released Curt Goynes for a double-cross that leaves him vulnerable to prosecution. Duke’s presence is so spectacular because not only does he barely require a spoken word to scare the living shit out of you, he never telegraphs what Watkins will do and forces you to lean in and stare in anticipation for what may come.
Finally, Ray Liotta and Julia Fox play Frank and Vanessa Capelli. In this married couple, the all-powerful ball-busting mob guy and his trophy wife are just the fronts for these two actors to get in on the fun and throw a curveball in the mix.
Finally, an uncredited cameo which I won’t spoil, reveals the architect pulling strings in an unexpectedly satisfactory way. Soloman’s script and Soderbergh’s construction of the performance with this collaborator drip with an acceptance of the cyclical and certainty of corruption in the world as it is, rather than as we’d like it to be.
For masters in any field, the game they play slows down. “No Sudden Move” doesn’t need to show its hand; Soderbergh is three steps ahead and not looking like slowing down.