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Movie Review: 'No Sudden Move' Is Smart About How It Tells Its Story

 Don Cheadle and Benicio Del Toro in 'No Sudden Move'
Warner Bros. Entertainment
Don Cheadle and Benicio Del Toro in 'No Sudden Move'

There are, of course, a lot of stories, big and small, going on all the time. Huge events are made up of many moving parts, involving people we never see, or even really consider. Steven Soderbergh’s No Sudden Move tells of a few people at a major inflection point in American history—people who can only really see what’s in front of them, but for whom the stakes are incredibly high. And for the rest of the world, the stakes are even higher.

That Soderbergh and screenwriter Ed Solomon have told this story through the lens of one of Soderbergh’s crime caper films is one of many clever moves the two make. The movie takes place in Detroit in 1954, as Don Cheadle’s small-time criminal Curtis Goynes has just gotten out of prison and is approached by Brendan Fraser—looking not entirely unlike Orson Welles in Touch of Evil—who offers Cheadle $5,000 to help force a mid-level auto exec to rob some mysterious document from a coworker at his company. Cheadle is partnered with Benicio del Toro, another of the zillion familiar faces in the film, and the two work together, eventually by necessity, to navigate double- and triple-crosses, to make some sense of where it all goes, and to climb the ladder to the guy behind the guy behind the guy, and the promise of more money.

Soderbergh shoots the film with extreme lenses that allow him to squeeze into tight spaces, which makes for some thrilling camerawork in the interior scenes, and often makes it seem as if we’re looking through a peephole, spying at what’s going on. But these lenses also create a disorienting distortion that in the larger shots made me feel a bit carsick at times—a curious through-the-looking-glass sensation made curiouser by the fact that so much of the movie is based in automobile culture. This is mid-century Detroit, after all, and cars are everywhere—we’re either in cars, talking about using cars, or seeing two or three cars in the background. Detroit is a city of progress, technologically and, as we learn, in terms of city planning, with neighborhoods being razed and highways being built, something that’s far more welcome in some circles than in others. For much of the film this is only under the surface—we hear Cheadle reference the destruction of some black neighborhoods, but only during one awkward conversation, and there’s little indication of the much, much larger picture we eventually see. This leads to a feeling that the ultimate social and global context is shoehorned into the film, until we consider that this is just how the characters would be experiencing everything. They’re just people in the middle of this enormous story, with no possible idea of what’s surrounding it all.

Which brings us to what might be the most important function of those lenses: they create an extremely limited depth of field, with only one very specific part of the frame in focus at any time. Often, this isolates each person from their surroundings—even two people right next to each other aren’t necessarily both in focus, let alone the foreground or background, which sometimes melt into blurs of color. Soderbergh forces us into a situation where we can see only one very small part of the whole picture, exactly the place each character occupies in the entire ordeal. After all, an assembly line worker doesn’t see the whole car, and they, like these characters, simply end up as more grist for the mill.

The entire cast is a delight, but it’s a special treat to see Cheadle with a meaty role like this again. Goynes appears to be punching above his weight, and maybe making things up as he goes along, but a guy like that has to be smart to still be alive at this point, especially considering the trouble he finds himself in. And what seems like too much ambition proves itself to be far more modest, and reflective of the fact that Goynes, like much of the black community, has to work so very hard just to get the small amount he’s owed. Cheadle is now in his late 50s and wears the age well, with a sharpness bubbling behind the weariness Goynes must feel after constantly scrambling uphill for so long. We get tiny hints of what his life has been, but in keeping with the rest of the movie, we aren’t told any more than what the characters themselves say. They’re the ones living it, why should they explain it to us?

Soderbergh is so brilliant at this kind of film (well, many kinds, but that’s another matter), and it’s probably not acknowledged often enough just how funny he is, although plenty of the credit here also needs to go to Solomon. No Sudden Move builds on itself as we follow the story up and up, and then tumble all the way back down, only realizing the full scope at the film’s tail end. It’s simply pure joy to watch a director so in control of the story that he wants to tell, and it doesn’t hurt that he’s made one of the most wildly entertaining movies of the year.

Fletcher Powell has worked at KMUW since 2009 as a producer, reporter, and host. He's been the host of All Things Considered since 2012 and KMUW's movie critic since 2016. Fletcher is a member of the Critics Choice Association.