Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Hold Still for “No Sudden Move”

When I was growing up, my family’s most spectacular automobile was a 1959 Buick, a sleek highway beast with tail fins and a metallic paintjob in a shade called “Lido Lavender.”  Traveling ‘cross-country in that remarkable car, each of us could feel like a king (or queen) of the road. I mention this now because Steven Soderbergh’s new crime drama, No Sudden Move, is similarly in love with cars, though from a slightly earlier vintage. His film is set in 1954 Detroit, which was then the auto capital of the world. But the vehicles featured in his convoluted story are not yet low and sleek. Instead they’re massive, bulbous muscle-cars, even when painted in fetching, feminine shades of aqua. It’s all fitting, because this tale of life in the Motor City hinges on cars—and muscle.

 Soderbergh started his rise in the film industry with a low-budget Sundance hit, Sex, Lies, and Videotape. I think of this as a chamber-piece, focusing tightly on four intertwined characters: a young wife (Andie MacDowell), her faithless husband (Peter Gallagher), her good-time sister (Laura San Giacomo), and the mysterious stranger (James Spader) who breezes into town with strange quirks of his own. It’s a beautifully crafted little drama, both written and directed by Soderbergh, who used this as his ticket to much bigger, gaudier efforts. From the looks of his filmography, it seems Soderbergh likes Wagnerian symphonies better than chamber music. His hits have included epic fare like Traffic and Ocean’s Eleven as well as the recent The Laundromat: he seems to like nothing better than plunging into a hot-bed of criminal behavior and following wherever it leads.

 In the case of No Sudden Move, we’re first introduced to grifters who represent two different crime communities. Don Cheadle is an African-American with a checkered past; Benicio del Toro has Italian mob connections. Both are so desperate for work that they take on a strange job keeping a suburban family at gunpoint while the husband is carted off to open a safe belonging to his boss. Why’s the safe empty, and what do the missing documents represent? By the time this is sorted out, a lot of people are dead, others are badly bruised, and the auto industry continues to reign supreme. Yes, the auto industry—this is not merely a crime film but also an indictment of industrial collusion, loosely based on a genuine incident from America’s past. It all comes home to us in a key speech by a surprise (and unbilled) character, who —late in the film—looms somewhat in the way that Ned Beatty did in Network, delivering a monologue that brings Soderbergh’s bigger political and social point into focus.

 If the action in the film seems all about guys and guns, think again. The women in No Sudden Move may be housewives and secretaries, not gangsters and crooked gumshoes, but in the grand scheme of things most of them are equally culpable. They too know what they want (perhaps more clearly than most of the men do), and they’ll stop at nothing to make their dreams come true. Don’t let their aprons and bouncy curls fool you: these femmes are quite capable of being fatale.

 There’s hardboiled humor in the film, and almost no one you could call particularly nice. Heroes, let us say, are in short supply, though one teenage boy is sure trying hard to save his family. But maybe, after a year of quarantine (not to mention a political insurrection), we’ve become cynical enough to appreciate a story in which no one is much good at all.


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