The problem with reviewing a movie like “No Sudden Move,” the latest crime thriller from director Steven Soderbergh, is that it benefits from the new viewer not knowing much at all about it. To that end, I’ll say that if you like twisty stories of seedy men on the run and narratives that force the audience to work out the story for themselves, you’ll like this. It premiered on HBO Max last weekend.
For those who are still unsold, here’s the rest of the review. I’ll studiously try to avoid spoilers.
“No Sudden Move” is set in 1950s Detroit, and it focuses on two low-level criminals who are increasingly in over their heads: Curt Goynes (Don Cheadle) and Ronald Russo (Benicio Del Toro). They’ve been hired to threaten the family of a General Motors executive (David Harbour) so that a criminal element of unknown origins can get its hands on some documents of uncertain provenance. The job goes sideways, and they go on the run. We follow their story and watch as it weaves in and out of the lives of the cowardly exec, multiple gang lords, big business, and mountains upon mountains of double-crosses. Seriously, you think you’re done with the double-crosses, and then they keep coming and coming.
Soderbergh is perhaps best known these days for his slick “Ocean’s” trilogy of heist films, but “No Sudden Move is something bleaker and — on the surface, anyway — more ramshackle, at first appearing more similar to his kidnapping flick “Out of Sight” (which, like “No Sudden Move,” is home to an excellent Cheadle performance). Though far from the luxurious confines of Vegas casinos and French art galleries, you’ll soon discover it’s no less tightly plotted (much more so than the shaggy “Ocean’s Twelve”), with a complicated plot that demands your attention and pulls several reversals over the film’s two-hour runtime.
I think the grim tone and endlessly recursive plot — both good things here — can be credited largely to the screenplay by Ed Solomon, and it is his story that I liked most about “No Sudden Move.” It is not a movie that holds your hand; it requires you to be watching and listening to suss out who everyone is and how they relate to each other, and it doles out that information sparingly and throughout the course of the film. There were multiple times when I thought I was on track with where the movie was going, only for another parcel of information to be delivered and reorient my understanding of what had come before. Reminders or signposts for previously-relayed plot mechanics are scarce.
This method of storytelling might irritate some, and I could see it doing the same to me if the film didn’t play fair with its narrative. The pleasure of “No Sudden Move,” however, is that everything appears to flow logically from all of the information you learn over the course of the film. By the time the movie is over, you will understand what’s happened by absorbing and remembering the characters’ machinations, so the mental work you’ve done really feels like it’s worth it.
Though the plotting and, to a lesser extent, the tone feel like products of Solomon, Soderbergh’s movies always show an attention to detail and style, and this is no exception. The mid-century Detroit setting feels grimy and dirty (appropriately so, given what we’re told in the film is happening to the city’s historic black neighborhoods), and I appreciated Soderbergh’s use of an anamorphic lens, which made the characters on screen seem more desperate, as if they needed to stay in absolute control in order to avoid sliding out of the narrative and into an early exit.
If I have a complaint about “No Sudden Move,” it’s that it was so buttoned down and understated at times that I wished I could get just a little more energy from it. That’s not to say there aren’t moments of excitement or humor —there definitely are, like a scene of a man tearfully apologizing to the boss he’s beating up for information — it’s just that when those moments are given, they feel like tasty morsels you’d like just a bit more of. The actors, particularly Cheadle, Del Toro, Harbour and Keiran Culkin, who plays another small-time crook, all embody their roles well, and sometimes you’d like to see them get more room to flex.
Then again, maybe too much more pizzazz would detract from what makes “No Sudden Move” so good. The film is ultimately about the intractability of hierarchical systems, be they defined by race, sexuality, or, most of all, money. For all of the low-status characters in this movie, be they housewives, mid-level managers, police detectives, or petty thieves, the goal is just to survive. Nobody makes it out of life alive, but they’ll settle for making it one more day.
Ryan Howard is a contributing writer to The Forest Lake Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.