A crime noir masterpiece or borderline pretentious?
For a director that supposedly retired from movie-making way back in 2013, Steven Soderbergh has been surprisingly prolific. Admittedly, there was a four-year gap between Side Effects, his so-called final film, and 2017’s comeback movie Logan Lucky, but he has rarely slowed down since. His latest film, the crime thriller No Sudden Move, has bypassed cinemas and is now available on Sky and Now TV (HBO Max in the US).
Is it worth a watch? Or should Soderbergh go back into retirement?
I have to say at the outset that I am not a big fan of the director. I appreciate his talents behind the camera but his films are often more style than substance and for this reason, his films rarely connect with me. You need only look at the Ocean’s trilogy to recognise his stylistic approach as well as such films as the recent basketball drama High Flying Bird that failed to land a slam dunk as a narratively interesting story.
Of course, there are exceptions. The coming of age tale King Of the Hill, the true-life drama Erin Brockovich, and his recent horror-thriller Unsane were all emotionally engaging and I truly enjoyed them. There are also other films in his body of work that are audience-friendly and narratively satisfying.
However, with an over-reliance on camera trickery and convoluted plotting, the majority of his films come across as being quite cold, dispassionate and, dare I say it, pretentious! Am I being overly harsh? I don’t think so although fans of the director might disagree with me.
But what about his latest film? Well, this 1950’s set heist thriller is certainly well made and it does have a great cast. It tells the story of three small-time criminals played by Don Cheadle, Benicio Del Toro, and Kieran Culkin, who gain entry into the family home of an accountant (played by David Harbour) in an effort to strongarm him into collecting a document of great worth from his bosses office.
The scenes in the house are effectively played, both tense one moment and comical the next, as the criminals have to deal with the dynamics between one another and the family whose home they have inveigled themselves into. It’s here where we start to learn more about the characters on screen and, with the possible exception of Culkin’s lowlife, actually start to warm to them.
But as this is a Soderbergh movie, the camera work starts to take precedence over the story. He uses a fisheye lens to keep the focus on his central characters in the middle of the screen while the background distorts and disappears around them. While I appreciated this stylistic approach, it did become quite distracting, not least because it takes attention from the dialogue, which surely wasn’t the director’s intention.
Thankfully, the quality of the actors on the screen pulled me back into the film. Aside from those already mentioned, special shout-outs need to go to young Noah Jupe as the son of the accountant, Brendan Fraser as the mystery man who brings the three criminals together, and Jon Hamm, as the detective who is called in to investigate the crimes being committed. As the film is dialogue-heavy, it’s a relief that the performances are all stellar, as with lesser actors, it may have been easier to lose attention.
The problems begin, for both the criminal trio and the audience, as soon as the action moves out of the house. While one of the crooks ‘babysits’ the family at home, the other two force Harbour into his place of business to get the all-important documents that they (and the people above them) are desperate to get their hands on. I’m not going to spoil the story by explaining what these documents are but it’s worth pointing out that these are a bit of a MacGuffin, being far less important than the interplay between the quirky bunch of characters that populate the film. This isn’t a major issue – many films, including Pulp Fiction and The Maltese Falcon have played out in similar fashion – but the end result is less satisfying in this film.
Why? Well, it’s all a bit of a mess. Double-cross leads to double-cross and after a while, the film becomes quite wearying. If the twists in the film made sense, this wouldn’t be such a problem. But as they don’t, especially when they involve side characters that we hear little about, it all begins to grate. There’s also a ‘big name’ cameo in the film that is also quite annoying. It’s not as bad as the cameos that plagued Ocean’s Twelve but this is more about Sodbergh caring more about shock tactics and his celeb friends than anything else.
Despite the film’s title, Soderbergh’s latest takes too many sudden moves into directions that I didn’t expect or necessarily want. There will be those who will hail it as a crime noir classic and a welcome return to the genre from the director. For me, it suffered from all the faults I regularly find with the director’s films, such as too great a focus on camerawork over story and moments that border on the pretentious. Needless to say, I shan’t lose any sleep if Soderbergh decides to go into retirement again.
Verdict - 6/10