Film Review – No Sudden Move
No Sudden Move
No Sudden Move (2021) is a terrific, pulp-noir throwback. It displays tight precision in front of and behind the camera, managing a rollercoaster of a plot. In lesser hands, this could have crumbled into messy incoherence. But in the hands of experienced professionals, it maintains a focus that allows us to keep pace with everything that happens – never leaving us in the dust but never holding our hands as well. While operating within a crime drama framework, the film continuously surprises us – revealing secrets that changes our pre-conceived notions. It’s thrilling to watch a movie and have no clue where it’s going. Watching this was the equivalent of witnessing a circus performer walk a tightrope without a safety net.
Steven Soderbergh demonstrates the best of his directorial tendencies here. He brings the same unique take on genre storytelling that he brought with Out of Sight (1998) and The Limey (1999) while incorporating the same social conscious present in Traffic (2000), The Girlfriend Experience (2009), and High Flying Bird (2019). He is one of the few filmmakers that can maintain an independent spirit while working within the studio system. Working off a script by Ed Solomon, Soderbergh crafts No Sudden Move with multiple layers functioning at the same time. Within a complicated story of hidden alliances and double crosses is a subtext that touches upon racism, sex, and real world corporate corruption. One could watch this for the first time and come away with one impression only to take away something entirely different upon a second viewing.
The plan was supposed to be simple. Curt Goynes (Don Cheadle) and Ronald Russo (Benicio Del Toro) are two low level criminals hired by Doug Jones (Brendan Fraser) on behalf of a shady “Chicago Outfit.” The job is straightforward: convince accountant Matt Wertz (David Harbour) to open a safe and give them the documents inside of it. It’s described as a “three hour babysitting job” that has little to no risk and ends with Curt and Ronald making some quick cash. But in the world of noir, the easiest capers are usually the deadliest. Soon enough, the babysitting job goes south, with Curt and Ronald trying to outrun multiple gangs as well as the authorities (led by Jon Hamm) hot on their tail.
The beauty of Solomon’s screenplay and Soderbergh’s direction is seeing how Goynes and Russo navigate the tangled web of deceit surrounding them. Instead of being pawns they become players, moving up and down the power structure that ultimately led to their predicament. The narrative plays like a domino effect where every plan goes wrong, money exchanges hands multiple times, and double crosses happen in every other scene. In the crime world, no one is to be trusted, and this movie exemplifies that. Curt and Ronald are constantly tip toeing around landmines, having to anticipate not only their next step but three to four steps beyond that. They must outsmart not only their enemies, but often each other.
On a deeper level, No Sudden Move reveals social inequalities that still plague this country today. While the story is set in the 1950s, it is seen through modern lenses. As Goynes and Russo follow clues behind the set up, they ascend the power hierarchy. Back rooms turn into executive offices. The further away Goynes and Russo are from the immediacy of the crime, the harder it is to see the ties that connect those who are responsible. It’s a reflection of the modern social structure, where those at the top are in control and those at the bottom unknowingly carry out their bidding. It’s that very structure that has led to racial discriminations such as the red lining of the housing market. The handling of money is of particular interest. Notice where the money comes from and where it ends up. The way it is split is an indicator of how off balance the system truly is.
The cinematography (Soderbergh, working under pseudonym “Peter Andrews”) utilizes a wide angle, fish-eye effect that distorts, curves, and darkens the outer edges of the frame. At first, it’s disorienting watching characters bend and shift as though they were being seen from a funhouse mirror. However, the distraction doesn’t last. We quickly adjust to the style and find that it adds to the overall sense of paranoia. Just as a Dutch Angle will contribute to an atmosphere of anxiety and tension, so too does the lens choice here.
The large ensemble cast brings their A games to their respective roles. Don Cheadle and Benicio Del Toro anchor the entire piece as the odd couple, but they are flanked by supporting characters that each make the most of their screen time. Ray Liotta and Bill Duke deliver contrasting but fitting approaches as rival mob bosses. With his bigger physicality, oversized trench coat, and snarly vocal delivery, Brendan Fraser character channels Orson Welles from Touch of Evil (1958). Amy Seimetz, Julia Fox, and Frankie Shaw are just a few of the female performers whose characters refuse to sit back as the subservient wives or mistresses. They are just as willing to lie, steal, and cheat to get what they want.
But among a group of stellar performances, it is David Harbour who steals the show. With his thick glasses and rumpled business suit, Harbour’s accountant is a nebbish character that could have come straight out of a Coen Brothers’ yarn. The character is hilarious and pathetic at the same time, who’s indecision has put him in a position way over his head. He comes from the same mold as William H. Macy’s Jerry Lundegaard in Fargo (1996), caught up in a crime and barely managing to keep afloat. In the funniest scene of the film, Harbour’s Matt attempts to beat information out of someone. The way he grovels and apologizes between each punch feels lifted out of the Screwball Comedy Handbook.
I’ve come this far and feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of what the film has to offer. No Sudden Move is an assured, confident piece of work that rewards viewers willing to engage with it. Strip away the themes and larger social commentary and you still have a solid, entertaining crime picture. The fact that it has all those other elements added in only enriches the material. Sometimes a great movie will reveal itself to you slowly, long after you watch it. Other times, the quality will be apparent while you’re in the middle of watching it. This one belongs in the latter category. It’s one of the best films of the year.