One of the more cunning jokes in Steven Soderbergh’s smart, slyly windy 1954-set Detroit thriller No Sudden Move is how little some of its characters know about cars. The plot hinges on a document coveted by some of the city’s biggest auto manufacturers, but the various lowlifes hired to steal it are, with one notable exception, happily ignorant of its contents. At one point a gangster mistakes a Cadillac convertible for a catalytic converter, a mistake he’ll pay for symbolically when two men shove him into the trunk of a Hudson. But while that document might be indecipherable to most, it wouldn’t be accurate to call it a MacGuffin. Unlike most throwaway plot devices, this one is rooted in actual history and its closely guarded secrets will have significant, potentially devastating implications — industrial, sociopolitical, and environmental. Those implications are of particular interest to Soderbergh, whose playful sensibility often conceals a deeper rigor about real-world specifics. As in some of his recent big-business milieus — the sports agent industry in High Flying Bird, the global shell-company hustle in The Laundromat — his vision of ’50s Detroit is a maze of double-crosses and venality.
Cars drive the narrative in more than one sense. The executive suites of General Motors, Ford and Studebaker-Packard figure prominently in Ed Solomon’s sharp screenplay, while some of the most important developments take place behind the wheel. The vehicles, popping out amid Hannah Beachler’s richly burnished production design, are lavished with loving visual attention. And fortunately, the people driving those cars are just as interesting. Among the most intriguing are a pair of world-weary hoodlums, Curt Goynes (Don Cheadle) and Ronald Russo (Benicio Del Toro), plucked from the city’s warring black and Italian criminal factions and fired for a lucrative if exceedingly off job. Their task is to “babysit” the family of a flop sweat-filled corporate worker named Matt Wertz (David Harbour) while he fetches the aforementioned papers from a safe at the office.
Like so many arrangements involving masked men, drawn guns and a terrified wife (Amy Seimetz) and kids (Noah Jupe and Lucy Holt), the plan goes violently awry in no time. A darker conspiracy looms, forcing Goynes and Russo into an uneasy partnership as they try to avoid becoming bounty fodder and score a potentially huge payday. Cheadle and Del Toro give emotional form to two distinct states of desperation; they maintain a nicely combative rapport that draws you in but also keeps you on your toes. From there, the tricky side hustles and devious reversals multiply almost by the minute as the two men try to maintain the advantage over whoever may be hunting them (and also, of course, over each other). Their allies and rivals include a hulking Brendan Fraser, a trigger-happy Kieran Culkin, a sharply dressed Bill Duke, a surly Ray Liotta, and an unflappable Jon Hamm.
There are also dark-suited movers and shakers played by Hugh Maguire, Kevin Scollin and one actor whose identity, like most of the story’s late revelations, shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to anyone who’s been paying attention. That’s a lot of men behaving badly, though happily Soderbergh remains one of the most casually and consistently gender-egalitarian American directors of his generation. The ’50s setting may account for why most of the women are housewives, mistresses or secretaries (sometimes even two of the three), but nearly all of them make the most of — and sometimes even subvert — the conventionally supportive, straitjacketed roles they’ve been assigned. No one does that more fully than Seimetz as Mary Wertz, who shames her caddish husband several times by handling a terrifying situation with impossible wit and courage. Like Lauren LaStrada, who lights up one bittersweet scene as a sympathetic figure from Goynes’ past, Seimetz needs only moments to sketch a character that takes ahold of all around her. Close behind them are Julia Fox and Frankie Shaw as two women who are involved with men patently unworthy of them — and who prove far more aware of it than those men may realize. If corporate backstabbing and mob double-crossing form the narrative engine of No Sudden Move, romantic betrayal provides the lubricant; the James M. Cain-style plot turns on not one but two instances of marital infidelity.
The result is a ride that’s equal parts smooth and bumpy in the right places. You are pulled along by the seductive glide of Soderbergh’s filmmaking, by the jazzy riffs of David Holmes’ score, the quiet tension of Soderbergh’s staging. (Plenty of movies like this include a scene in which someone has to answer the door with a gun pointed at them and pretend that everything’s fine; very few expertly build the tension and then deftly, immediately defuse it by having the victim look out the window, see the neighbor lingering, and murmur “Well, I don’t’ think that’s the end of that.”) While Soderbergh’s understanding of the crime caper can hardly be doubted at this point, the noirish cynicism of No Sudden Move suggests a grim tonal and moral reversal of his earlier ensembled thrillers, chiefly the Ocean’s movies. Rather than leaving behind a warm glow of camaraderie, the movie’s trapdoor-pulling final scenes leave us pondering the vagaries of ill fortune, the futility of greed and few bluntly articulated lessons about how capitalism builds and destroys. What it’s destroying in this particular slice of American history is a sizable chunk of Detroit’s black population, continually subjected to racist housing policies and zoning laws. Goynes wants to use this job to redress some of those injustices, but there are limits to what he can accomplish, and also to what the filmmakers can illuminate in the course of a two-hour film. No Sudden Move does what it can to usher those hard truths into the light, particularly in one pointed scene set in a black suburb that will soon be leveled to make room for a freeway. The moment sticks out like a sore thumb, and I mean that entirely in a complimentary way. Sometimes it’s not just about the destination or the journey, but the detours. Suavely twisty and keenly intelligent, No Sudden Move is a caper labyrinth imbued with personal life; a precisely tooled parable of late-capitalist vice and corruption.
No Sudden Move is available to stream on HBO Max