Was the Cannes Film Festival wrong to award Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape over Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing in 1989? Perhaps in the long run. Soderbergh, quarterback for the Eccentrics of the Nineties American indie movement, has also used his own quirky interests to make narrow-minded forays into class and ethnic differences. His new film, No Sudden Move, is another eccentric item: Set in the racially diverse Detroit of 1954, this is a crime thriller — another dreaded heist movie — where the semi-hard-boiled characters operate under the cloud of America’s historical inequities.
Two ethnic lowlifes, Goynes (Don Cheadle) and Russo (Benecio Del Toro), meet when hired for a robbery that takes them into the Motor City’s upper classes. We see the griminess beneath the American dream — from the desolate urban streets to leafy suburbs where even a middle-class white family is already spiritually broken. “What if you don’t want the things that you’re supposed to want?” asks an unhappy housewife following the siege by Goynes and Russo.
That accusatory cliché is as phony as Soderbergh’s slick digital imagery. Working again as his own videographer under the name Peter Andrews, Soderbergh settles for flash over realism — the movie looks like film-noir calendar art. Decorative noir reveals Soderbergh’s shallowness. He and screenwriter Ed Solomon offer commonplace dissatisfactions in familiar crime-plot situations but with class and ethnic inflections from Cheadle, Del Toro, and Waspy David Harbour. It’s still Hollywood fantasy, though, especially when some of the actors use Brooklyn accents (a mistake that also marred Jerry Schatzberg’s Detroit-set Scarecrow, from 1973). Indie Soderbergh is trapped in Hollywood’s class stereotypes.
This is where No Sudden Moves turns into No Fresh Ideas. Soderbergh and Solomon use the Detroit setting to imitate the Los Angeles water-rights plot in Chinatown, specifying auto-industry trade secrets that Goynes and Russo naïvely stumbled onto. Having indicated local lore as urban Americana, particularly in the opening scenes where Cheadle embodies post–Great Migration Negro aspiration (a reprise of his Devil in a Blue Dress role, while also referencing black pulp novelist Donald Goines), Soderberg then does little with Cheadle’s blues-based truculence. Brief mention of “urban renewal, more like Negro removal” refers to Detroit’s infamous eminent-domain policies that devastated Detroit’s mid-20th-century black social life, yet Soderbergh ignores that fascinating subject (explored in Suanne E. Smith’s 2001 historical study Dancing in the Street: Motown and the Cultural Politics of Detroit) and moves on to other noir race clichés — as in One False Move and Motherless Brooklyn.
Soderbergh hits bottom when Matt Damon shows up as a car-company executive, sneering a Network-style lecture on economics and systemic white privilege (“Money is like a lizard’s tail; you cut it off, and the damn thing just grows back.”). Not only does Damon turn his back on Ford v Ferrari, the last interesting movie he has made, but his appearance is a reminder of Soderbergh and his movie-star friends celebrating American crime in that dispiriting Ocean’s Eleven franchise.
After Cannes, Soderbergh graduated from the indie-movie fringe to the center of mainstream Hollywood, and his former eccentricity soured (as happened with Goynes and Russo). A home-invasion scene where Russo drapes a blanket over a woman’s head evokes the Coen brothers’ sarcastic Fargo rather than the moody, penetrating look at middle-class American tragedy in the Coens’ best film, The Man Who Wasn’t There. The eccentricity of No Sudden Move is merely cynical, suggesting that Soderbergh lost interest midway. At least in High Flying Bird (2019) and Lucky Logan (2017), Soderbergh got vital performances from Sonja Sohn as a bitchy black executrix and Daniel Craig as a redneck savant — surprising testaments to American eccentricity.
But No Sudden Move’s epilogue about the U.S. Department of Justice filing against GM, Ford, Chrysler, and American Motors for “withholding the science of pollution-reducing technologies” exposes Soderbergh’s trite liberal sanctimony. He authenticates America’s inherent corruption — white and black criminals canceling each other out — negating the moral valor of De Palma’s The Untouchables or The Asphalt Jungle or The Killing, movies Soderbergh probably thinks he’s smarter than.
Soderbergh’s fondness for caper and heist plots is unaccountable in a filmmaker with artistic pretensions. He’s not a genre revisionist; instead, he twists genres while perpetuating cynical social clichés. This makes Soderbergh more like Spike Lee than anybody suspected.