Soderbergh: No Sudden Move (2021)
If anything, Steven Soderbergh’s late period creativity has only flourished more during (and after) the pandemic. Since returning to cinema, Soderbergh has largely focused on crafting small-scale, self-consciously minor works that explore the ways that space and time have been eroded and denuded – but never quite vanquished – by the digital era. Add to that the constricted spacetime of the pandemic, and Soderbergh’s subsequent films all feel like so many dreams of lockdown, or dreams from lockdown, strategies for inhabiting public spaces that no longer quite seem to exist. In No Sudden Move, he returns to the retrofuturist texture of The Knick to produce something like a post-cinematic riff on the Ocean’s films. A heist film in name only, Casey Silver’s screenplay quickly grows so cryptic and convoluted that it dissolves into (or makes way for) Soderbergh’s spatial schemes, the real subject of the film.
It’s appropriate, then, that No Sudden Move begins in the midst of a vast amorphous space – what appears to be an industrial wasteland, or an exurban precinct. Gradually, our main character, Curt Goynes, played by Don Cheadle, enters the frame, traversing this space for his first free walk after a sustained stint in prison. Space itself is novel for Curt, but also disorienting, since the world seems to have changed considerably since he went away (it is 1954), making it harder for him (and the camera) to orient himself spatially. Soderbergh suffuses his mise-en-scenes with odd angles, people blocking the frame, and a general Lynchian sparseness, close in spirit, at times to the peculiar coldness of Twin Peaks: The Return. The light, in particular, is perpetually cold – always a little too harsh, a little too bright – suffusing every scene with a bleary morning-after feel, as if the camera hasn’t quite woken.
Soderbergh supplements these spatial aporia with an even more overt technique – a distorted camera lens that bends anything that passes by the middle of the frame. This distorted lens corresponds to a harp glissando that percolates through the score, producing a ripple in space and time, a spatial glissando, that makes it look like space is moving around people as much as people are moving through space. Physical space, here, has lost its ability to anchor action, and in its place Soderbergh presents us with a more relativist scheme in which space and people are moving in their own separate trajectories. The effect feels proto-digital, as if all these empty spaces of the analog era are already brimming with their future digital traffic.
Insofar as No Sudden Move has a plot, it unfolds as an effort to pin down this elusive spatial field. Curt quickly meets up with a criminal contact, Ronald Russo, played by Benicio del Toro, who recruits him to “babysit” a bank manager and his family while another pair of criminals rob a safe at the bank’s headquarters. This heist is defined in purely formal terms, as an exercise in spatial containment above all else: “We’re sending a man who works in an office to pick up something from that office.” Just as Curt and Ronald have to keep the family bounded by the house, the other two criminals have to penetrate the bank office, and then the safe, to retrieve a document. For most of the film, we don’t learn the import of this document – it functions primarily as a functional device, a Mamet-like incentive to formalism.
On the face of it, this setup resembles classic home invasion films, and Michael Cimino’s remake of Desperate Hours in particular. Yet the bank manager’s home takes on a new porosity at the precise moment that the criminals arrive to close it down. Soderbergh turns up the cold light, heightens white noise in the background, and amplifies the birdsong, to make it clear that this space (or any space) can never be contained. While there are some warm hues during the home invasion scene, they only serve to intensity the coldness around them, producing what might be described as cold space – space that refuses to be sequestered as an interior by the camera, or to welcome the camera into its own interiority. The criminals arrive at a moment of psychological porosity as well, since the bank manager and his wife are about to call time on their marriage, while Curt is performing the heist for precisely the opposite reason – to buy himself a parcel of land so he can finally settle down.
At stake, then, is nothing less than the spatial logic of Eisenhower’s suburbia, so it’s not surprising that this babysitting scheme cannot last. Not only do Curt and Ronald realise they cannot contain the family, but they soon deduce that the entire scheme has been a plot to entrap and murder them. Their effort to claustrophobically sequester the family involutes into a flight from an agoraphobic conspiracy that propels them out into an emergent postmodern cityscape where the very act of moving through space is a form of precarity. Soderbergh now tracks them through a series of public-private spaces, starting with a phone booth that ushers in the most stylised colour contrast of the film, to the Humpty Dumpty Motel (the very name suggests precarity), which ushers in the most flamboyant tracking shot. Both these shots pave the way for a gradual dissolution of space into a chain of lamps, tables and phones that often recalls Mulholland Drive: the connective tissue of the 50s, but now suspended in a more amorphous and disorienting field that is impossible to properly parse.
That inability (or unwillingness) to find a stable resting-place produces a remarkably disorienting second half, as Curt and Ronald move up through the spatial hierarchy of the city, displacing conventional closure in an effort to seek out the supreme architect of it all. In the process, the film vacillates between suburban melodrama and science fiction in the manner of so much mid-century cinema, discovering the cosmic in the domestic, and the domestic in the cosmic. At times, this feels like Soderbergh’s riff on Sirk, since his scenes are full of queasy cusps between interior and exterior light that expose the fragility of suburban interiority to begin with. This precarity is all the more pronounced in that the film takes place in middle-class suburban Detroit, an unimaginably remote prospect from the perspective of the most decayed city in modern America. In Soderbergh’s vision, the spatial logic of Detroit has already decayed by the mid-50s, even if the infrastructure is still in place, at least for the moment.
As the second half of the film proceeds, Soderbergh not only opts for deliberate disorientation, but ruptures the reality effect of his film in order to evoke this splintering spatial field. In one of the most bizarre scenes, Curt and Ronald go to the banker’s boss’ house, to convince him to give them the document in the safe. Since the boss personifies the safe, and the prospect of circumscribed space is little more than a consolatory fantasy by this point in the film, the scene plays out as formalist farce, overt metafiction. Even though the boss’ wife has already seen their faces, Curt and Ronald don a series of ridiculous disguises, and then articulate each event before they perform it: “I’m going to punch you. This is a punch.”
Yet No Sudden Move never quite descends into pure formalism, never quite reaches the functional nihilism of Mamet, since Soderbergh provides one critical spatial reprieve: car travel. When Curt and Ronald first realise they’ve been tricked, at the banker’s house, their first instinct is to get back in the car and drive as far and fast as possible. From here on, cars become the only place where the characters, and the camera, can recover some interior space, or a line of flight from the film’s refusal to grant them interior space. Interiority, it seems, can only be glimpsed in transit, much as Soderbergh’s spatial glissandos tend to be most pronounced in tracking-shots across, within, or from the perspectives of automobiles.
As the only safe space in the film, cars also resonate in a peculiarly poignant way against the backdrop of the Motor City. It turns out that the safe object, the object in the safe, is a blueprint for the catalytic converter, a new mechanism for minimising exhaust pollution. Similarly, the criminal conspiracy is being run by the Big Four car companies, who are anxious to keep the catalytic converter off the market for as long as possible, since it will induce the government to create tighter restrictions about emission control. The catalytic converter only became mandatory in 1975, so the film unfolds at the start of a extended period in which the Big Four managed to withhold pollution-reducing technologies in order to maintain their monopolies over the market. While car travel may offer a reprieve from the splintered spatiality of Detroit, it’s fruit of the poisoned tree at this point in time, the first glimpse of an industrial complex prepared to cause total environmental catastrophe to maximise cash flow.
At this point, No Sudden Move enters its abbreviated third act, a Pynchonian information conspiracy that ends with Curt and Ronald coming face to face with Mike Lowen, or “Mr. Big,” the most powerful automobile executive in Los Angeles, and the architect of the film’s spatial scheme. When asked by Mr. Big what he knows about the motor conspiracy, Curt responds in spatial terms, invoking Paradise Valley and other areas where black folk have been forced off their land. Mr. Big responds in kind, blithely observing that “the country’s relandscaping itself…it’s happening everywhere, a hundred cities like this.” Dismissing any “proven link” between cars, pollution and the catalytic converter, Mr. Big gestures beyond the decline of Detroit to climate change itself as an even more catastrophic (the most catastrophic) devolution of space. With this historical backdrop in mind, our own response to climate change in the present seems even more belated, much as the film only explains these links in a final, belated intertitle – too late for us to process them at any immersive narrative level.
As the spatial horizon of the film, Mr. Big plays a similar role to superheroes in the modern cinematic imagination, residing at the top of the Gotham Hotel, between Seventh and Wilshire, and never really disclosing his exact relation to the automobile industry as a whole. Instead, he tells Curt and Ronald that he’s the architect of capitalism in the same way that God is the architect of the universe – present everywhere, visible nowhere – which perhaps explains why Damon is the only uncredited actor in the ensemble cast as well. More pressingly, he tells Curt and Ronald that he will always win, even if they lose, and this plays out in the final two tableaux of the film. In the first, Ronald flees the city, drives his car onto a dirt road, then straight across a field, and beside a lake. For a moment, he seems to have left the film’s spatial logic behind as thoroughly as he has left roads behind, only for a triple-cross (or perhaps a quadruple-cross, by this stage) to result in him being shot then and there.
The second moment involves a standoff with police, on the cusp between this bucolic rural lakeside and the start of a new suburban division, “Homes of the Future.” Even at the most distant fringes, spatially and narratively, of the film, Mr. Big’s influence stays strong, leaving Curt with nothing to do but retreat back to the same amorphous space that opened the screenplay. He’s no longer returning to jail, but the mood is the same, as he wanders down a deserted industrial precinct by a river, and then down a regular suburban street, before Soderbergh cuts to black, jettisoning us in the weird disjunction between these spaces – in a dissolution of space itself that car travel is no longer sufficient to counteract, let alone escape.
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