Steven Soderbergh: A Smooth Operator for 21st-Century American Cinema

The American director has pivoted from retirement to making exceptionally bold and format-pushing series and feature films.
Ruairi McCann

Kimi (2021)

There’s a vital undercurrent to recent mainstream American cinema in the form of Steven Soderbergh’s tireless, unassuming productivity.

Soderbergh is no stranger to success—either critical or commercial—nor to the upper echelons of studio filmmaking, and yet in the early 2010s he made a shift to a more unassuming way of working. The trigger was a larger, long-gestating seachange across the cinema landscape. The major American studios increasingly turned away from producing a variety of movies, of various sizes, types and expectations, and made fewer films but with ballooning costs and so little leeway for artistic risk. While put out by this great shake-up, Soderbergh embraced another: the medium’s mass digitization.  

His response has been to stay away from blockbuster projects but also to avoid making work that would obviously comply with the grinds and ploys known as “festival circuit” or “award season,” even if his reputation often still draws him there.  Instead, while doubling down on certain tendencies that he’s always possessed, such as a penchant for genre dissection and reassembly, Soderbergh has stuck to productions of low to medium budgets and short schedules. He has also shown a renewed and increased willingness to produce work other than single, fixed length motion pictures destined for the movie theatres. 

The result is an artist of fruitful contrasts. Soderbergh’s movies are unabashed entertainments, made with big stars and studios, and with a near-classical clarity and discipline. And yet there’s consolidation of roles (he acts as not only his own cinematographer and editor, but also camera operator and often edits during shooting) and a formal adventurism usually associated with the avant-garde or more truly independent and micro-budgeted corners of narrative cinema. It’s a string of films that, when taken together, puts into speculation not only what it means to be an autonomous artist in a popular art dominated by corporations. On a film-to-film level, they’re often uniquely invested in directly dealing with contemporary society and its ills, while also in conversation with wider cinematic traditions.  

This repositioning and the burst of creativity it has produced reached a heady peak with his “retirement” from filmmaking in 2013, which turned out not to be the end but the harbinger for one of the most progressive periods of his career, particularly in television. The 20 episodes of The Knick (2014–15) is a striking panoply; a detailed social panorama and reconstruction of early 20th century New York manifested with marathon acts of imaginative handheld cinematography coupled with associative editing that rendered the period drama as a direct and experimental space. It’s a series that stands from the largely formally staid and pompous world of prestige television. More overlooked than The Knick, the HBO show Mosaic (2017) works well as a miniseries but its incarnation as a “choose your own adventure" app was a particularly rich foray in new media. 

Soderbergh’s return to filmmaking was not as a Hollywood’s prodigal son but rather by taking a rare investigation of new formal possibilities while bypassing the major studio hegemony, a system which he described as potentially lethal to cinema as an artform in his “State of Cinema” address at the 2014 San Francisco International Film Festival. His comic heist film Logan Lucky (2017) and  psychological horror film Unsane (2018) were both released wide domestically yet without the major studios’ backing, for Soderbergh self-distributed through his company Fingerprint Releasing, in partnership with another independent, Bleecker Street. 

Unsane is notable too as a perfect marriage of straight-ahead genre plotting with jerry-rigged, experimental techniques, for Soderbergh shot it on an iPhone, creating some of the most garish but imaginative images in his entire corpus.

The degree of experimentation would soon level off. After his militant sports drama High Flying Bird (2019), Soderbergh swapped the mobile for similarly ultra-compact but less inventively abrasive models of the Red camera. High Flying Bird was also released with Netflix, and so far the first of five movies and counting released for giant streaming platforms, with the unpredictability, but also the specific autonomy, of independence sacrificed. The Laundromat (2019), a sprawling farce about the Panama Papers scandal, also distributed by Netflix, seemed to be the definitive end of a winning streak. One of his worst films, it’s an admirable attempt elucidating a branching, chaotic narrative with a corresponding mishmash of stylistic choices, but Soderbergh’s rendition of Scott Z. Burns’ unfunny, didactic script is frequently leaden and the performances are consistently limp or outrightly terrible, unusual for a filmmaker with a knack for directing ensembles. 

However, his practice of snappy production and incisive playful artistry has revived in the blighted 2020s, if not quite to the same ambitious, category-breaking heights reached a few years ago. Produced for Warner Media and their platform HBO Max, as part of an ongoing, multi-film deal, Let Them All Talk (2020) and No Sudden Move (2021) are very different in their milieus and in tone, and yet both are very concerted redressals of older genre forms and are preoccupied with mortality. 

Let Them All Talk stars Meryl Streep as Alice Hughes, a renowned but personally and creatively troubled novelist who uses the excuse of a lengthy ocean voyage, undertaken to deliver a special address in the UK, to invite along and reconnect with two estranged friends, Roberta (Candice Bergen) and Susan (Dianne Wiest). Shot on the ocean liner RMS Queen Mary 2 during its transatlantic passage, therefore limiting a significant chunk of the shoot to the vessel’s two-week itinerary, Soderbergh’s response to this time constraint was to push the risk even further. Production began not with a complete shooting script but a prose outline, packed with plot and character detail but limited in dialogue for a film significantly dominated and propelled by conversation. The dialogue then was worked out between Soderbergh, writer Deborah Eisenberg and the cast during shooting.  

The result is a film that fits the mold of the screwball comedy, with its emphasis on dialogue, its interweaving of dalliances, romantic and platonic, febrile and frustrated, and its class consciousness. Howard Hawks’s screwballs seem to be particularly influential. He’s an important touchstone for Soderbergh, as another director whose filmmaking was diverse and treated as a rigorous yet on-the-fly operation. The trick here is that while a film like His Girl Friday (1940) is defined by its exponential speed, Soderbergh slows things down in accordance with his characters as they playfully mull over and act out against the notion of old age as the necessary twilight of one’s romantic, sexual, and creative desires. 

At this mid-tempo, the approach to language, to what is left said and unsaid, is still playful. Class and personal tensions, vying interpretations and lessons learned from the implied years of baggage are fleshed out in the three former confidantes' recurring, stilted lunch rendezvouses and the exegeses that follow. Alice’s tentative non-encounters with a mute and mysterious gentleman (John Douglas Thompson) serve to off-set the reams of dialogue, allowing Soderbergh to conjure modest but interesting set pieces and later hammer home the film’s deep melancholy. It’s a film set in the lacquered spheres of literary fiction publishing and a high-class cruise yet Soderbergh keeps proceedings spry and direct, laying down conditions for Streep to give a beautifully circumspect performance, a rarity in her overencumbered late career.  

An evocative weariness hangs over No Sudden Move as well. It’s tried-and-tested ground for Soderbergh, as a crime escapade with copious cast members, gambits, and hoodwinks. Set in suburban and side street Detroit in the 1950s, No Sudden Move feels closer to a sturdy, cynical piece of pulp à la The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973) than the director’s own Ocean’s Twelve (2004), except that it shares the latter’s intent of keeping the audience at a distance. Soderbergh renders his manufactured past with the eye-stinging clarity of high definition, a subtle expressionism in the color timing and wide-angle lens that distort the edges of the frame. It’s a work of disillusionment all-around, sprawling out from an attempt to blackmail a motor executive for a mysteriously valuable document that turns into a double-cross that extends and multiplies. It’s not filled with airtight set pieces, panache, and winning streaks. Instead, it’s a shaggy dog story of fuckups fucking up, darkly comic longueurs and sparse deliveries of direct, matter of fact violence. This malaise has its source in Don Cheadle’s performance as aging gangster Curt Goynes (Don Cheadle), as a fitful but tired force. His ex-con contrasts with the confidence and composure of those safe enough on top merely to watch and wait until the pawns shirk and kill the money right into their hands. 

Soderbergh’s newest movie, Kimi (2022), is an exciting example of an old shoe that still fits. It’s a nuts-and-bolts thriller and a refit of suspense classics like Rear Window (1954), The Conversation (1974) and Someone’s Watching Me! (1978), all employed in depicting the now. This lean genre film incorporates not only the world COVID has made but, more significantly, the corporate world, its miniaturized technologies and online surfaces, structures and weapons. 

Shot from a David Koepp script in the spring of 2021, Soderbergh takes advantage of its limited wriggle room, carefully inscribed in the writing and imposed by the pandemic, to create a familiar closed system which then unfurls into richly dramatic, textural, and political zones. 

Set in a silicon Seattle, Angela (Zoë Kravitz) is a tech worker whose apartment has become her entire world. Suffering from severe agoraphobia, developed following an assault and exacerbated by lockdown, she lives a highly controlled yet anxious existence. Her routine, décor, and social media presence are carefully arranged to the nth degree, and all human contact, personal and professional, is mediated over voice and video calls and can be cut-off with a tap of a screen if they stray out of her comfort zone. The exception is the occasional hook-up with Terry (Byron Bowers), a lawyer who lives across the way and her friend with benefits, and would-be romantic interest, if her fear of bursting her protective bubble wasn’t in the way.  

Angela works for the multi-million-dollar Amygdala Corporation, whose chief product is the eponymous, and creepily chirpy, smart speaker (voiced by Betsy Brantley). The device is the cause of some controversy, as its auto-recording function, implemented so any errors can be detected and corrected by human employees, allows for any possible utterance to be eavesdropped. Angela is one such drone, and while working through her virtual conveyor belt, she comes across a disturbing recording whose contents dredges up her trauma and drags her into a sinister conspiracy. 

The first half of the film takes place entirely in Angela’s apartment, a space that Soderbergh arranges as both a contrivance of her curation, and her prison. During these early sequences, shots are more often than not fixed, and when there’s movement, it’s slow and measured. The emphasis is on Kravitz, but also on planting and nourishing tension. The varying, and often simultaneous, effect is that of Angela as the master of her domain, almost as if the filming and editing had been subsumed into her routine, and as the subject of a dispassionate surveillance. The editing emphasises this uncanny aura—as well as providing a clarity necessary for a script where every seemingly throwaway character detail and prop will come tumbling further down the line of dominos. The tension is also ratcheted up through key sonic collaborations, with Cliff Martinez’s eerie cascades of gothic strings and electronic hail and Larry Blake’s pin-drop sound design.

Within this meticulously primed apparatus, Soderbergh is still plenty flexible and focused on his actors, Kravitz especially, who’s excellent in a challenging role. She’s in almost every scene and plays a frequently guarded or fractious and exacting personality who, every now and then, slips up and reveals a vulnerability. All of this is assembled with a tight, minimal range of gestures, yet her constant internal evasion is also expressed very physically through relentless habitual movement: pacing, through her exercise bike, the way she shakes her hands dry after putting on sanitizer, and later, full flight. Her well-ordered performance is complemented nicely with Bowers’ laconism and the broadness of much of the supporting cast. This chorus of hams shows that Soderbergh and the casting department are attuned to a certain overly performative nature of big tech’s “human face.” Actors associated with comedy (Andy Daly, Rita Wilson, and Jaime Camil) play the various scapegoats and middle men of this shambolic dystopia. While the huckster on top, Amygdala CEO Bradley Hasling, is performed by close-up magician Derek DelGaudio, who nonetheless plays him more as the Mark Zuckerberg style of corporate monarch, dead-eyed and banal. 

This carefully wound construction culminates in its dizzying yet satisfying transformation. The moment Angela is forced to face her fears and leave her apartment for the dreaded outdoors, a more expressionistic, cacophonic soundscape rushes in, accompanying shaky, lopsided tracking shots that swerve after her and as she makes her disoriented way through the city. It’s an exhilaratingly inventive sequence, with Kravitz’s rigid but determined movements giving her the mien of a stop-frame animation, and the assaultive camerawork is reminiscent of Samuel Beckett and Alan Schneider’s nightmarish chase movie, Film (1965). 

This sterling sequence is a critical hinge point for the movie, excitingly ricocheting away from the established rules. Kimi is a renegade piece of filmmaking, just one of many showcases of Soderbergh’s strengths as, to borrow from Robert Fripp, “a small, independent, mobile and intelligent unit”—one grinding away and skirting around a benighted, 21st century American cinema. 

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