At this point, if Steven Soderbergh is putting together a crime flick featuring two rows worth of names above the title, and another score by frequent collaborator David Holmes, there’s little to make me think I won’t be satisfied. No Sudden Move is more than just satisfying. Relying on a twisty plot that shifts around perspective and affords Soderbergh the chance to mess with the audience through visual choices, I had a blast with this film. It both has a lot to say and nothing to say, which is just one of the many things working in its favor, as Ed Solomon’s superb screenplay has plenty of quirky cards up its sleeve as we watch a simple enough plan go wildly wrong.
Set in 1954 Detroit, Don Cheadle stars as Curt Goynes, a recently released convict looking for a quick score to buy back what is his. Thanks to a middle-man played by Brendan Fraser (in full Sydney Greenstreet mode), Curt joins fellow low-ranking criminals Ronald Russo (Benicio del Toro) and Charley (Kieran Culkin) for a plan to steal a simple document. This requires invading the home of an auto executive (David Harbour) and forcing him to take action against his boss. Things do not go as planned, which leads to an assortment of other characters becoming involved.
The other characters make for one terrific lineup, as the supporting cast includes Ray Liotta, Jon Hamm, Amy Seimetz, Julia Fox, Noah Jupe, Bill Duke, and one unbilled cameo entirely fitting for a new Soderbergh feature. I point all of these actors out to say that the expectation I had for a film like this was met because of how in tune all of these performers seem to be with their characters. While there’s a larger purpose on a thematic level, No Sudden Move does function a lot like neo-noir pulp at times. As a result, several gangsters, corrupt cops, a moll, and shady businessmen all factor into this story.
Fortunately, this film is not without a sense of humor when it comes to acknowledging the levels of depth this story goes to as things become more complicated for all involved. The film is also not afraid to expand when needed. While Cheadle is perhaps at the center of this story, an extended period of time spent with Harbour is well worthwhile, as he is given one of the film’s finest and most absurd moments where he alerts a character that he is going to punch him, and continues dictating the actions he plans to take. Other moments similarly find characters dealing with the exasperation of this long day they all find themselves involved in.
Watching this film reminded me of the Coen Brothers’ Miller’s Crossing and Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep. This film is not nearly as indecipherable as those features are, but there’s something here that slightly elevates the quality above standard noir-ish fare. Perhaps it comes from the level of wit on display. Solomon has a good ear for dialogue, and the actors (particularly Cheadle and del Toro) are more than capable of selling moments, humorous or otherwise, by underplaying them.
Looking at what it all means, the story originated from the simple concept of a job gone wrong and how that can spiral out of control. However, the finer details of this film very much concern the context of the time and setting. This film is not about to educate everyone on the “urban renewal” measures taking place in Detroit, but No Sudden Move is not above making it clear that it’s a racially charged feature, complete with characters very much being at odds with one another simply based on skin color. Cheadle does well to take a lot with stride, but his role quickly finds him dealing with the changes that have come to the former Black Bottom neighborhood.
Additionally, the MacGuffin in question revolves around another Detroit-specific concept that even receives further explanation in some ending text. Mileage may vary on how interested people may be in this aspect of the story, but it does speak to a grander idea concerning big business and its intentions to hold onto power by any means necessary during evolving times.
Of course, this is also a film where masked men frequently force characters into awkward situations, such as holding people at gunpoint as they casually have them open the door to speak to others and pretend things are fine. Soderbergh gets a lot out of the unpleasant predicaments taking place among ordinary suburbanites, as well as the drawn-out drama when it comes time to deal with more seasoned criminals who just want all this high-profile activity to quiet down.
Not content to just film the action taking place, this is also very much an experimental Soderbergh visual project. Working with older cameras (as opposed to an iPhone), the uninhibited director makes deliberate choices using wide-angles and odd camera placement. Given the tight spaces, there’s a constant visual disparity creating a dramatic difference in presence, depending on where an actor is standing in a given scene. It’s not something to be ignored, which makes it seem clear Soderbergh is pushing certain visual constructs for the sake of forcing people to pay attention.
Taking inspiration from various film noir from the 50s, and specifically the melodrama of filmmakers such as Douglas Sirk and Nicholas Ray, it’s likely maddening to some viewers that Soderbergh’s visual choices betray other aspects of these sources of his inspirations. Regardless, as one who just seems to be on track with the oddball choices the prolific filmmaker goes for, No Sudden Move has too much working in its favor to be held back by its visual language. The cast is terrific, the mood balances tension and dark humor well, and the ideas buried within establish a greater purpose, even if the film mostly plays as a lark by way of bad luck and crucial timing.