Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
For a while it’s seemed as though Steven Soderbergh has been making movies to work out technical problems he’s curious about; writing about Side Effects, I said that Soderbergh was “like an artist who would rather be a technician,” because it felt as though he was deliberately developing an impersonal style while brilliantly pursuing new ways of making a film.
For instance, 2020’s Let Them All Talk played around with ideas about art and friendship and ambition—and had a hell of a good time doing that—but it also seemed to exist in order to find out whether you could make a feature film during an Atlantic crossing on a cruise ship. With No Sudden Move, written by Ed Solomon, Soderbergh re-visits the crime picture, and at first I wondered whether this one exists in order to create a particular look: Can you shoot an entire movie (or most of a movie) in a widescreen process that uses lenses that distort the edges of the frames? The answer is yes, and the effect turns out to be cool enough, arranging these small-time hoods in their horizontal boxes (these fellas are not going to be vertically climbing) and making the slippery ends of the frames seem especially dangerous and unstable.
No Sudden Move looks terrific otherwise, too, full of rich color and a no-nonsense evocation of Detroit in the mid-1950s—and also full of actors slouching and gliding through this world. Don Cheadle and Benicio Del Toro are as deft as you expect in these circumstances, and their physical difference is a joy to behold: Cheadle compact and close-cropped, slinking around warily (if someone told me he’d time-traveled back to the 1950s and studied a particular kind of Black man in Detroit, I’d believe it), and Del Toro overfilling his clothes and slumping into the nearest divan to help himself to a drink, never quite as quick on the uptake as he thinks he is.
As ever, Soderbergh fills even the smallest roles with marvelous types, and gets distinctive work in larger parts from Amy Seimetz, David Harbour, and Kieran Culkin. Bill Duke and Ray Liotta are deployed for some delicious cultural iconography, and Brendan Fraser is astonishing as a criminal go-between who has clearly stepped out of the pages of a classic crime novel. And speaking of classic crime novels, a central situation in No Sudden Move–a hostage-taking in a house—seems to have been borrowed from another source, which is fair enough because here the sequence is only one part of a larger plan.
That plan, and its political implications, come into focus only as the movie goes on, although one clue is the phrase “Cadillac convertible,” a misunderstanding, and a very funny note from Solomon’s script. (Elsewhere, I was bugged by a handful of anachronisms in the dialogue, unless someone can prove to me that people in Detroit in the mid-fifties used phrases like “grow your presence” and “sketchy” in the way they do today.) Like so much of what Soderbergh works on these days, the thing seems modest in its ambitions, until you reach particular moments (some big speechifying from a regular Soderbergh player in the final 20 minutes) and the pattern locks into place. There are also little bits that open up worlds, left unexplored but lingering in the film’s air: Seimetz’s apparently depressed housewife, turning her face away from the masculine nonsense of the film’s plot, looking into the abyss and at one point asking, “How does anyone do it?” The male characters never ask these things, preferring to keep moving and stick fatally to their patterns.
July 9, 2021
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.