Mosaic: A Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Review of Steven Soderbergh's Mystery

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IV. The Soderbergh Style

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As a director, in both film and television, Soderbergh’s aesthetic is hard to pin down. His longevity, from the rise of American independents through the “platinum age” of television, seems to me inextricable from his adaptability, his willingness to bend his own style to that of his subject—I think always of the sun-bleached Southwest of the near-contemporaneous Erin Brockovich and Traffic, or the lush theatricality of Magic Mike and Behind the Candelabra, or the sheer slickness of the Ocean’s films.

If there’s a recognizable through line in his work this decade, though, it’s a sort of preternatural—and at times impenetrable—cool: the frightful chill of Contagion, in which the hero is not Matt Damon’s doting father but Jennifer Ehle’s matter-of-fact epidemiologist; the kinesthetic composure of the fight scenes in Haywire; the muted disorientations of Side Effects; and, most formidably, the invigorating modern thrum of The Knick. Such a style suits Mosaic, the subject of which is, centrally, about the dirtiness hidden beneath Summit’s pristine snowpack—literally, in the sense that the beryllium deposit under Olivia’s land becomes, as I discuss on page six, a possible motive in her murder. It also, to my mind, underscores the fact that the viewer’s investment in the series is more likely to be as an exercise in puzzle solving than as a character study in multiple keys. The main players are ciphers, figures adept at wearing masks, and Soderbergh depicts this with precision—what never quite comes is the moment at which the masks are peeled off.

Blinding whites, electric blues, garish oranges: The palette here is reminiscent of Michael Mann’s Collateral, transported from the Los Angeles nightscape to a refined playground for the wealthy. This isn’t to say the aesthetic is entirely without its admirable rough edges. Joel, an outsider unsure of his place in Olivia’s life, in Summit, in the world, is often seen through wobbly, waist-level camerawork, a teetering figure on the verge of a tumble; Petra seems always to be facing the lens, whether Soderbergh’s turning the camera as she circles a desk or closing in on her over another character’s shoulder—she is, after all, as I write on page five, the series’ dominant perspective.

In the main, though, the (relative—this is still Soderbergh) lack of ornamentation closes us off to the characters’ inner lives, and by extension their motivations: “It is all about angle, isn’t it?” Petra says at one point, piecing together her own puzzle, but a number of key ones are shunted into the supplemental material. Take, for instance, the fact that Olivia and the local police chief, Alan Pape (Beau Bridges), were recently romantically entangled: The full extent of the affair, and his vicious response to its end, are brilliantly rendered as a chain of cringe-worthy emails, but these are, ultimately, off screen. Whether this is fascinating or frustrating may depend, in the end, on how deep you’re willing to plunge into Mosaic. In the context of the series’ cerebral nature, though—the sound is mostly an ambient whir; the underlying conspiracies are more nodded at than dramatized; the script pauses, self-consciously, to refer to true crime and television—I’m not sure it earns such commitment. It is, as its hardened surface suggests, a tough nut to crack, but the morsel inside the shell is not wholly satisfying.

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