Once theaters were closed down by the COVID-19 pandemic and Warner Bros. announced that its slate of theatrical releases would premiere on HBO Max instead, I feared that when the movie houses reopened, they would show nothing but big-budget spectaculars, with smaller films being regulated to a streaming release.
Unfortunately, this has come to pass. Stephen Soderbergh’s “No Sudden Move,” by far the best film I’ve seen this year, premiered on HBO Max with little fanfare or notice. The sort of movie that would have been touted as an Oscar contender and promoted as such, it was only screened for a handful of critics before release, being treated more as afterthought or obligation to the filmmaker. Needless to say, I urge you to seek it out.
Soderbergh has never suffered fools. Even his more lighthearted efforts (“Ocean’s 11,” “Logan Lucky”) are smarter than you expect, while his best films (“Traffic,” “The Laundromat”) are multi-layered narratives that challenge the viewer to follow a complex story that slowly reveals itself with one subtle revelation after another. “Move” falls in the latter category, a labyrinthine film noir throwback that’s far more than a simple crime thriller.
Set in 1954 Detroit, a trio of hoods, Curt, Ronald and Charley (Don Cheadle, Benicio Del Toro and Kieran Culkin, respectively) are hired to convince Matt (David Harbour), a corporate accountant, to steal a document from a safe at his workplace. Holding his family hostage convinces him to do so. Of course, this surefire plan proves to be anything but as what should have been a simple transaction goes sideways, leading to a series of double-crosses, narrative switchbacks and moments of dark humor that will keep you guessing as to who did what and why until the very end.
The tendrils of this story extend farther than the principal trio can possibly imagine, which leads to one of the film’s most powerful conceits. Pawns in a conspiracy far too complex for them to understand, once Curt and Ronald stumble upon the man pulling the strings, they could not care less what the job they were initially hired for is about.
They aren’t alone, as before things come to the necessary bloody conclusion, a high-ranking cop (Jon Hamm), a criminal big-wig (Ray Liotta), a hapless go-between (Brendan Fraser) and a powerful kingpin (Bill Duke) are unknowingly sucked into this scheme, playing roles they’re unaware of, having an impact on plans they’ve never been privy to. And do I have to mention there’s a femme fatale (Julia Fox) on hand as well?
It’s this sort of delicious irony that makes “Move” such a rewarding exercise. Yes, there may be moments when you may lose the narrative thread. Yet Soderbergh rewards your patience with a devastatingly cynical conclusion that ties all the seemingly loose ends together, giving us a glimpse of a far-reaching insidious plan.
But what makes the film resonate is that this is far more than a crime thriller, as it touches upon race relations in a powerful but subtle manner that also serves as an indictment of corporate America.
Uncommonly smart and entertaining, this film has the spirit of John Huston hanging over it, as so many of his movies dealt with exercises in futility, the director driving home again and again the folly that comes when tempting fate or believing in a “perfect plan.”
Stylish and engaging from the first minute to the last, “No Sudden Move” is the sort of film that only reveals itself completely after you’ve turned it over in your mind a time or two — something you’ll be doing again and again.