Somewhere in my preteen years, when I was taking in film so voraciously that I may have grown allergic to the sun, I stumbled upon Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. I was hooked. It was probably my favorite movie for years, until some other hyper-masculine auteur thing took its spot. And, while it makes me feel like a dorm-room film nerd to admit it, I still love Reservoir Dogs (I can at least say I never had a Pulp Fiction poster hung up in my dorm room).
Reservoir Dogs belongs to a specific type of modern crime film. These films have a sizable ensemble cast, flashy dialogue, a winding narrative chock full of backstabbing and secrets, and the outcome generally goes badly for every character involved. Stakes matter, because the script is not beholden to the safety of the principal cast of characters. Death is treated as superfluous, a mere hazard of the profession. Cynicism reigns as supreme as in the bleakest of film noir, yet the generic elements of the film hew closer to baseline exploitation cinema.
Nothing in this equation sounds bad to me. On the contrary, I am drawn to it. Which isn’t to say this formula is full-proof on me. But I even enjoy Smokin’ Aces. A plot solely focused on a dozen or so assassin’s targeting a blinding, syphilitic Jeremy Piven may not sound quality on paper. And, in execution, it is not particularly sleek or intelligent. But when the formula works, it works.
Steve McQueen’s Widows and Steven Soderbergh’s No Sudden Move are perhaps the closest that this formula has skewed toward prestige genre fare. Soderbergh’s film may lack the visual bigness of McQueen’s, but it is not without its precision, a precision that does not come at the expense of the sheer messiness of the film’s characters and their situation.
In 1954, an ex-con and thief (Don Cheadle) is paired with another petty criminal (Benicio del Toro) to “babysit” a family while its patriarch (David Harbour) is sent (under duress) to retrieve a green folder from his boss’s office safe. This folder, whatever it might contain, is worth a pretty penny. When this seemingly simple job inevitably goes sideways, the two thieves concoct a plan to climb the chain of command under which they work and dupe the top man. Meanwhile, the organized crime division of the FBI and various crime bosses are after them. And everyone is lying to someone. What is it they say about honor among thieves?
Soderbergh takes this convoluted crime narrative and imbues it with hues of social commentary, however platitudinous they may be. At the core of this plot is an automobile oligopoly and an unabashedly proud member of the socioeconomic elite. The sheer juxtaposition between the struggle of the blue collar criminals and the ease of the white collar ones is telling and blatant; their respective punishments: damning.
The very value of money becomes a central part of this film, thematically speaking. Despite the shocking disparity in amounts, the money left in the hands of the surviving characters has a symbolic value worth its weight in gold. To these characters, in the end, the actual dollar amount seems meaningless, yet money runs the entire system which created the crime, the danger, and the economic stratification.
No Sudden Move is cleverly, yet densely, written. References to unseen characters and expositional events are foregrounded before it is clear what their import is. Character’s backstories are laid out clearly without any pointed explanation. Some jokes are only understand in retrospect, after the full picture of this criminal underbelly is understood. It might not all be fully grasped upon first viewing, but screenwriter Ed Soloman provides just enough rope to string you along.
Soderbergh shoots the film almost entirely in wide-angle, leaning into the extreme at times with shots that appear fish-eyed. It is a highly noticeable choice which is not always aesthetically pleasing, but it often accomplishes the apparent goal of distorting this image of Detroit. It doesn’t look natural or comfortable, because the conditions of the city in the 1950s is one of racially-charged corruption. Although Cheadle plays it coolly, his Curt Goynes is pitted into an environment which is suffocating, and Soderbergh’s camera reflects this.
A downside to the formula I describe above is that it can come off as tedious, circling a drain of over-complicated plot machinations and an ambivalence to mortality. In this same way, these films can come off as overly-pessimistic and apathetic towards the situations they depict. With No Sudden Move, the pessimism is a recognition of the protagonist’s precarious situation, which was thrust onto him by actively-suppressive macroeconomic actors. The enemy is less a man with a gun and more a system indebted to its own preservation at the expense of all those below it.
Bleak as this all may sound, No Sudden Move is an entertaining watch. Think of it like Reservoir Dogs with a conscience.
No Sudden Move: A-
As always, thanks for reading!