I adore crime movies, though some flavors more than others. About half of Quentin Tarantino’s filmography focuses on crime, and Pulp Fiction alone birthed legions of imitators. For years, there were scores of films involving loquacious scumbags holding forth on pop culture and committing unexpected (but completely expected) acts of violence. Some of these movies were even good.
Tarantino’s crime movies are like a cheeseburger ordered at the trendiest restaurant you can imagine, cooked by the biggest celebrity chef out there. You’ll enjoy that burger, I promise you, but while you’re eating it, it’s as if the chef is leaning over you and whispering, “You like that? It kicks ass, right? You know who made it? Me.”
It’s the most refined, boiled down to their essence crime movies, those are the ones that hit me hardest. They embrace the genre unreservedly, where the only people seem to be lowlives, where every utterance is at least partially a lie, and where dumb luck can be the only thing preventing you from catching a bullet.
Steven Soderbergh has made a few damn fine crime movies* in the midst of his cinematic output. The Limey and Out of Sight spring to mind, and I think Soderbergh is a director with a strong understanding of how to make a satisfying genre film with something to say before inserting himself into the mix. Those are the films of his I look forward to the most, and I was mostly pleased with his newest work, No Sudden Move.
It’s not quite fair to call Curt Goynes (Don Cheadle) a gangster. As far as the pecking order goes, he’s not parking cars for made guys, nor does he stand around nightclubs trying to look scary. He’s got a little bit of a reputation as someone competent, someone with a brain in his head, and someone without a dangerous amount of ambition. It being 1954 and Curt being a Black man, he also knows it’s harder for him to get what he wants.
To do that, he needs a good chunk of money. Luckily, the “recruiter” Doug Jones (Brendan Fraser) needs three guys for a job. It’s supposed to be a simple job, only three hours of work.** The plan revolves around Matt Wertz (David Harbour), a meek family man with a couple of secrets. The first is that Matt is having an affair with his boss’ secretary. The second is that within a green safe in his boss’ office is something valuable. Valuable enough to kill for.
Curt is partnered with two other men. Ronald Russo (Benicio del Toro) is also having an affair. It says a lot about both Ronald’s confidence and shortsightedness that he’s sleeping with Vanessa (Julia Fox), who’s married to short-tempered mob boss Frank Capelli (Ray Liotta). While Ronald is a racist and immediately has friction with Curt, he doesn’t seem to be an especially committed racist, so that’s progress, I guess? The third man is Charley (Kieran Culkin), who’s calm, cool, and collected — until he isn’t.
The plan, such as it is, directs Curt, Ronald, and Charley to the home of Matt. They’ll invade the place and while Charley forces Matt to get the contents of the safe, Curt and Ronald will keep the family under control. Will they, though? It won’t be easy with Matt’s wife Mary (Amy Seimetz) and impulsive son Matthew (Noah Jupe) thrown into the mix. Things get even more complicated when one of the team ends up deceased, a quietly persistent cop (Jon Hamm) gets on their trail, and yet another crime boss (The mighty Bill Duke) decides to put his finger on the scales.
Sometimes, directors will make a genre film, and you can almost feel them straining to rise above it. With No Sudden Move, it never feels that Soderbergh is better than the material. He’s making a crime movie, though one made with precision and efficiency. There’s zero fat on this film, and he knows just when to pump the brakes, hit the gas, or linger a moment on a character beat. While things get slightly too complex midway through, Soderbergh’s confident direction allows us to trust that he knows what he’s doing
It helps that he’s working off of a smart and twisty script by veteran screenwriter Ed Solomon. At the micro-level, the screenplay does excellent work fleshing out the character. We might not get the details of exactly what Curt wants the money for, but we know it’s important to him, and we also know that he’s simultaneously trying to secure his future while taking responsibility for his past. At the macro level, Solomon has fascinating things to say about power and how people from all walks of life relate to it. In a late cameo from a massive movie star, there’s a line of dialogue which is, “I did not create the river. I am merely paddling the raft.” The meaning behind that line informs the motivations of all these characters in unique and natural ways. Having said that, the cameo involves a fairly long monologue that, while interesting, saps the momentum of the film for a few minutes
The vast majority of actors would gladly compete in The Hunger Games for a chance to be in a Soderbergh movie. He gives his casts the freedom to perform without stifling them and often coaches out career-best work. Everyone here does excellent work, but there are a few people who deserve further examination.
For the last couple of years, Benicio del Toro has seemed content to play weirdly dressed weirdos. As Ronald, he’s playing a guy who knows he’s playing a very dangerous game and desperately wants out. Yet there’s a tiny streak of nihilism in Ronald, and it’s as if a little voice is whispering to him, “What the hell, let’s see what happens.” Speaking of self-destructive moves, I think Matt might be one of the best pieces of acting that David Harbour has ever done. Matt is needy, pathetic, and all too aware of his fragilities. Harbour allows us to see the deep vulnerability of a man making the latest in a long line of lousy decisions and who seems powerless to stop himself. With this along with Black Widow, he’s having a hell of a year.
And then there’s the underappreciated Don Cheadle. You can put him in anything, from a prestige drama like Hotel Rwanda to a gigantic blockbuster like Avengers: Endgame. He’s never slumming it, nor is he one of those actors who undergoes body transformation like Meryl Streep or Christian Bale. Cheadle works from the inside out. He likes to burrow into the psychology of his characters and use their behavior to inform how they move and speak. As Curt, Cheadle plays a man who’s just gotten out of a serious prison stretch. He knows there’s a window, a very narrow one, where he can change his life for the better. He also knows there’s a good chance he’ll either get thrown back into jail or an anonymous grave. Curt is just as desperate a character as Matt. He’s more controlled, and Cheadle shows flashes of fear before slamming the door.
No Sudden Move is a familiar story told with style, efficiency, and perspective that comes from years of experience. This isn’t the kind of movie designed to crank up the adrenaline during summer, nor is it the kind of film built to win Oscars. It’s very much built to be the best version of itself, the kind of movie that feels well-refined and thought through. I can see myself returning to this film, over and over, and always with pleasure
*To clarify, remember that even though the heroes in Ocean’s Eleven are criminals, it’s not a crime movie. The focus is on the job they’re pulling, making it a heist movie.
**My favorite cliche in crime movies is the “It’ll be easy” trope, where the simple job turns out to be a gigantic nightmare every single time.