No Sudden Move opens with a job, during a time and place when such a thing would begin its fixed descent into scarcity. But what starts as easy work for a guy desperate for cash turns into a labyrinthine set-up at the heart of an American-made conspiracy.
Steven Soderbergh—who has been churning out films at even more of a breakneck speed than he’s known for due to his late 2010s affinity for iPhone filmmaking—didn’t allow a simple worldwide pandemic to keep him from shooting his newest crime picture, filmed in September 2020 after being pushed back due to COVID-19. Featuring a jam-packed, household-name cast, Soderbergh’s latest transports us to 1955 Detroit, Michigan, with multiple threads woven into its dense script penned by Bill and Ted scribe Ed Solomon. Though Soderbergh’s direction acts as a steady guiding hand, it’s snaked through a winding story that leaves little room for true investment. No Sudden Move thus remains a bit too steady—too controlled and cool-headed, like its leading men—never quite living up to its potential.
Curt Goynes (Don Cheadle), recently released from prison and looking for work, is hired by a man named Jones (Brendan Fraser) on behalf of an anonymous client to do a simple job for a big payout. Teaming up with two other small-time criminals—tolerant Ronald Russo (Benicio del Toro) and the immediately suspicious Charlie (Kieran Culkin)—two of the crooks must “babysit” the family of auto executive Matt Hertz (David Harbour) while the other accompanies the patriarch to retrieve an enigmatic document. The work seems easy enough (a little too easy) until a crack in the foundation gives way to the big reveal that they’ve been set up. Curt must improvise his way to safety and modest riches for him and Ronald, the pair of whom make a charmingly reluctant odd couple. While Detective Joe Finney (Jon Hamm) means to track them down, Curt and Russell evade capture both by the authorities and the mobsters who two-timed them, on their way to uncovering the true nature of the document they were meant to repossess.
In the film’s third act, the two men discover that this ostensibly minor crime spirals into a wide-spanning conspiracy that reaches into the future of our world. Leading up to this, however, the film pads out its nearly two-hour runtime with space for each of its various characters: A seemingly throwaway line referencing Hertz’s affair with his secretary, Paula (Frankie Shaw), develops into a full-blown arc showcasing the nature of their illicit relationship; Hertz’s unhappy, unfulfilled wife, Mary (Amy Seimetz), hints at unrealized romantic inclinations with a female neighbor; Hertz’s son, Matthew (Noah Jupe), wrestles with his adolescence against his burgeoning masculine expectations, goaded into “doing the right thing” by Finney; and Ronald’s lover, Vanessa (Julia Fox), walks a delicate tightrope between her affair with the petty criminal and her marriage to gangster Frank Capelli (Ray Liotta), who is instrumental to the initial scheme.
Soderbergh’s restrained look into 1950s Detroit is almost dreamlike in its patience, anchored by a lingering camera that carefully follows its subjects just as intently as they stalk one another. Acting as editor and cinematographer as well as director (crediting the first two under separate pseudonyms), Soderbergh’s warped, round-edged, kinetic wide shots might lead one to infer that similar filmmaking practices were utilized to that of the filmmaker’s iPhone-captured High Flying Bird—though no explicit confirmation has yet been made as to the type of camera, or cellphone, Soderbergh used for No Sudden Move.
Regardless of whether or not Soderbergh once again made iPhone filmmaking look more visually elegant than most modern Hollywood blockbusters, No Sudden Move suffers from low stakes and a disconnect from the world of our characters. Everyone—from a housewife to a bellhop—is made to feel instrumental to the story and to one another. Perhaps it’s a case of the script juggling too much (or too many big-name actors) in one film that we’re left familiar with these people, but not close enough to them. Begat from this is an emotional distance from the narrative that leaves an inability to truly care about where the story leads them, not helped by murky motivations, unclear twists and turns, and ultimate double-crosses that simply don’t shock or intrigue. Soderbergh carefully pushes his film forward in spite of how much it tends to drag, while the simmering chemistry between the two criminals at the heart of everything is left too much in the lurch. This is all accompanied by a lurking racial tension—Curt finding more camaraderie in Black strangers, or having a bounty put on his head worth less than Ronald’s. It’s an aspect that could be read as underexplored, but is still interwoven within the film’s world in a way that arguably makes such touches a statement through their own banality.
The film’s denouement settles on a sinister realization that we already know: That people in positions of power are intent on doing all that they can to make things better for themselves, and worse for the rest of us. And while the nature of the discovery will be surprising to those unfamiliar with the film’s real-life thematic ties, the journey to getting there isn’t laden with the propulsion or wit of something like Logan Lucky or the Oceans flicks. Instead, No Sudden Move revels in the patience boasted by its own title, and that meditative aspect may prove difficult to endure for a payoff that only deigns to remind us how the carelessness of the past has threatened our future.
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Writer: Ed Solomon
Stars: Don Cheadle, Benicio del Toro, David Harbour, Brendan Fraser, Jon Hamm, Amy Seimetz, Noah Jupe, Kieran Culkin, Bill Duke, Ray Liotta, Julia Fox
Release Date: July 1, 2021
Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer based in middle-of-nowhere Massachusetts. Her work has appeared at Little White Lies, Film School Rejects, Thrillist, Bright Wall/Dark Room and more, and she writes a bi-monthly newsletter called That’s Weird. You can follow her on Twitter, where she likes to engage in stimulating discussions on films like Movie 43, Clifford, and Watchmen.