Steven Soderbergh’s HBO Max film No Sudden Move starts like all heist movies: with what’s supposed to be a simple job. A small team of criminals are hired with the promise of an easy payday. They’re told to put on masks and “babysit” a family by breaking into their home and holding them hostage at gunpoint. After three hours of this, the job will be done, and they can leave the family unharmed, and get paid. Of course it doesn’t go that way. It never does. Before long, everything spirals out of control as one crew’s score splinters into multiple schemes and wickedly sharp cinematic chaos. And all of it gestures at the true cause of the violence: not the greed of petty thieves, but the rot at the heart of the project called America.
Soderbergh, the wildly prolific filmmaking polymath who also shot and edited the film (which was written by Ed Solomon of Bill & Ted and Men in Black fame), turns No Sudden Move into a dizzying number of things. It starts as a crime caper, makes a pit stop among the sitdowns and power-jockeying of gangster films, and somehow manages to tie its many disparate threads together in a period drama about the destruction of an American city. It’s all the more dazzling that it does all this while being slickly entertaining and assured.
While there are a lot of characters to keep track of, No Sudden Move mostly keeps its focus tight on Curt Goynes (Don Cheadle), a small-time crook in 1955 Detroit with a big secret that’s left him with few friends in the world. He’s hired by Doug Jones (Brendan Fraser) working on behalf of someone else, to get a document from a man named Matt Wertz (Stranger Things’ David Harbour). Joining him in the task are Ronald Russo (Benicio del Toro) and Charley (Kieran Culkin). Together, the trio plan to hold Matt’s family hostage while Charley takes Matt to get the document.
It’s no surprise that this goes awry. What is surprising is where the rabbit hole leads. As with any story about criminals, a big part of the fun is what happens when a room full of people who categorically cannot trust each other are forced to, even though they (and the audience) know full well that someone is likely to be a double-crosser. No Sudden Move layers in the backstabbing and betrayal with a real sense of danger and comedy, but what really makes it linger is the ways each turn of the plot skirts a different part of the city it’s set in, expanding not only the narrative, but the scope of the crime being committed, and the definition of who the real criminals are.
While satisfying and rich on its own, No Sudden Move’s knotty plot demands viewers’ close attention, and a bit of contextual knowledge about its 1950s Detroit setting goes a long way toward fully clarifying its scope. (Here’s a good primer.) The film feels like a magic trick, given how it’s resolutely a crime caper, but also a tour of the forces at play that turned Detroit from the booming city it was to the struggling city it is. At the start of No Sudden Move, this transformation is already underway, as its established Black communities are being squeezed out of their neighborhoods by monied interests in order to raze and rebuild them in the service of capitalism. In a way, it’s the story of every American city.
This depth makes No Sudden Move the sort of film that rewards multiple viewings to catch the way its careful research pays off, and to fully appreciate the many dynamics at play. Fortunately, it’s extremely easy to revisit the film — No Sudden Move is full of fantastic performances breathing life into characters mean and funny and dark, sometimes all at once. Cheadle and del Toro in particular are compelling as crooks who hate each other, and who have an uncanny knack for keeping a steady hand even as the walls close in around them.
But just about every actor in the film arrives onscreen with their characters perfectly calibrated for the moment. (Amy Seimetz in particular shines in the thankless role of Matt Wertz’s wife Mary, bringing a dark edge to a character who spends most of the film as a hostage.) This is also part of what makes a Steven Soderbergh movie a delight: Seeing which actors are going to show up next for roles large and small, and how much fun they’re going to have.
Soderbergh is known for his constant experimentation. He plays with both how stories are told (like the non-linear experiment Unsane, or the color-coded triptych of Traffic) to how they are made, choosing to shoot a few films, like the 2019 Netflix drama High Flying Bird, entirely on iPhones. No Sudden Move isn’t that kind of flex, but it does have its own visual flourish. He shot it with a wide-angle lens that, in tight spaces, gives a fisheye look to scenes, distorting the image at the edges of the screen. Most times, it’s only noticeable if you look for it, but in other sequences, it’s unavoidable, a visual cue that gives the sensation of voyeurism. The further into No Sudden Move we sink, the more it seems like we’re being treated to a view of something we aren’t supposed to see. Cities don’t fall apart like this naturally, and big businesses are steered by people who know full well what they’re doing to us. Our demises are designed, and the bumbling crooks take the fall.
No Sudden Move is now available to stream on HBO Max.