Sunday, May 26, 2024

‘No Sudden Move’ Swerves Through Detroit

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No Sudden Move is a smooth ride of a crime film both metaphorically and literally. Set in 1954’s Detroit, it is a film that allows characters to speak in ways that require us to listen to what they say and don’t say. That it’s crammed full with a murderer’s row of actors is just the cherry on top.

Steven Soderbergh weaves a crime thriller that is very close to being noir, to the point that it seems like the genres may have brushed up against each other in the hallways. However, at its heart, No Sudden Move is less about how we cannot escape ourselves and our desires but about how America became a rigged system.

If you are not paying attention, you will not see this until the last few minutes of the film. But also true to Soderbergh’s style and craftsmanship, No sudden Move is just a pure cinematic delight from start to finish. Every scene contains actors we love to see talking in ways that we love to hear.

Ed Solomon’s script gives us characters that are wary yet blunt. Both Solomon and Soderbergh clearly love the old classic Hollywood crime sagas of the studio eras. But they have endeavored to blend the old-school style with modern sensibilities. They do this by merely acknowledging what we already know, America is racist. 

It’s racist now, and it certainly was racist in Detroit during the 1950s. So when Curt Goynes (Don Cheadle), a gangster on the outs with the two major gangs running the town, walks into the barbershop to see about a job, the dialogue tells us as much. The man who wishes to hire him is outside. “He can’t come in here? What is he, white?” Jimmy (Craig muMs Grant), the man who called Curtis, nods.

Curt immediately eyes the job with suspicion. The man in question, Doug Jones (Brendan Fraser), is looking for someone to do a “babysitting” job. Curt accepts only to discover that the job comes with two other men Ronald Russo (Benicio del Toro) and Charley (Kieran Culkin). It’s a simple job.

Of course, they, and we will learn that it is anything but. The plan is simple. Charley is to accompany Matt (David Harbour) to his office and steal some papers. Curt and Ronald will stay behind with Mary (Amy Seimetz), Matt’s wife, and their two children Matthew (Noah Jupe) and Peggy (Lucy Holt), to make sure Matt behaves.

That’s all I’ll say about the plot. Except to say soon it will predictably spiral out of control from a simple job to a situation involving the big three auto companies and two competing crime organizations, one led by Frank Capelli (Ray Liotta) and the other by Aldrick Watkins (Bill Duke). How they converge and intersect throughout the movie is one of an abundance of pleasures in No Sudden Move.

One of the things Solomon and Soderbergh achieve so effortlessly is the way the characters are drawn. I don’t just mean personality, but in how intelligent or ignorant each character is. It’s hard to tell who’s pulling what over who; that’s by design. Solomon and Soderbergh have a way of showing how innately smart or not so clever each character is.

At one point, Liotta’s Frank snaps at del Toro’s Ronald. “You see, Ron, the problem is you’re not smart enough to know how not smart you are.” But much of this can be credited to Solomon’s snappy dialogue and Soderbergh’s impeccable lensing.

But truth be told, in terms of acting, No Sudden Move is an embarrassment of riches. Soderbergh has always been one of the better directors who knows how to get the best from his actors, and here he is given the added edge of having a primo stable of talent. 

Don Cheadle, an actor who has long been overlooked and poorly utilized by a certain major studio, reminds us here that he is one of the better actors of his generation.

Cheadle’s Curt, along with del Toro’s Ronald, have such easy-going chemistry while also demonstrating the gulf of class and privilege between them is a delight. The way Cheadle’s body language tells us everything we need to know about Curt contrasted with how Ronald’s obsession with his appearance clues us into how his mind works are all part of a larger picture. 

Poor Ronald always seems two steps behind, except when he thinks he’s ahead of the game, which, we understand, means he’s already lost. Curt, on the other hand, seems to be running on another plane. Of all the characters, Cheadle’s Curt appears to understand the lay of the land better than anyone. Maybe that’s because, as a Black man, he understands the system is already rigged, so he can’t win.

Amidst all these magnificent turns, I couldn’t help but find myself delighted by the brief appearances of Julia Fox, Fraser, and Duke. Fox plays Frank’s wife, Vanessa, with who Ronald is having an affair. Much like her turn in Uncut Gems, Fox has a way of making us love her despite her character’s actions. She has a way of playing duplicitous and sincere at the same time that is breathtaking. 

Fraser reminds us that he remains not just a movie star but a damn good actor. The way he plays Doug Jones is so natural that it’s impossible to catch him acting. He delivers his line with such little affectation, like he wrote the lines himself, carries himself so naturally, Fraser the actor might as well not even exist.

But then there’s Bill Duke, a living legend. Duke has probably all told three minutes of screentime, maybe, and he is the star of every single one of him. His Aldrick is a mysterious, menacing presence who swaggers through Detroit unconcerned with the problems and foibles of the other character. Duke plays him with just the barest hint of a flair, and it’s such a sight to behold that it’s infuriating we don’t get more time with him.

Soderbergh understands its best to let your actors play, to inhabit, rather than embody. Part of how he fosters that idea, that, I think, is by being both the editor and cinematographer. By doing so, he can reliably help protect an actor’s performance in post-production or find richer tones in which to portray it.

This also gives Soderbergh control over the feel and look of his film. No Sudden Move is filmed primarily through a fisheye lens. As a result, the edges of the frame are curved, making it appear as if we are looking at old photographs through a magnifying lens. The camera glides, distorting the image briefly as the center of the frame slowly becomes curved and what was once the edges gradually comes into focus. It’s as if it is the physical representation of how the characters and the audience’s ever-evolving view of the world and the story changes.

No Sudden Move moves along so easily you’d swear you were riding in a Cadillac. Solomon’s script gives us the backstory on characters before we even meet them but does so in ways that we don’t realize we’re being given information. The movie is a masterclass on how to give exposition without the audience realizing what is happening.

By the time the last ten minutes roll around and we’re introduced to another character, it all begins to make sense. I won’t reveal who plays the character; some pleasures deserve to be experienced. Soon the double-crosses and the triple-crosses start to pile up, and then we’re left with an ending that I couldn’t help but applaud.

I loved every second of No Sudden Move. The characters are intelligent, to varying degrees, and are not only interesting but say interesting things. It is a film in which characters learn the hard truth about the world; the rules only matter to those who can not afford to make them. No Sudden Move understands that it’s not America the brave, but America for the highest bidder.

Image courtesy of HBO Max

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