Australian Films

Don’t forget the motor city

No Sudden Move, Directed by Steven Soderbergh, Streaming on Amazon Prime

20 November 2021

9:00 AM

20 November 2021

9:00 AM

Detroit is the only American city where I always felt uneasy. Even the cops look at you as if you have no right to be there and this is as true of Renaissance Center downtown as it is in poorer parts of this once great American metropolis. Steven Soderbergh in his intriguing new crime film, No Sudden Move, takes us back to that astonishing post-war period of Detroit in 1954 where the four automakers General Motors, Ford, Chrysler, and American ruled supreme, dominating the city’s industry, politics, and lifestyle.

Soderbergh brilliantly creates 1950s America with its leafy middle-class streets, lush green lawns and quiet neighbourhoods, all traversed by an extraordinary collection of automobiles reflecting American engineering at its most creative and optimistic. The movie was filmed in and around Detroit itself, which makes for a convincing realism but also sees the decay of the current city intrude into the prosperous Detroit of the 1950s.

The wardrobe department for No Sudden Move must have consulted extensively through back catalogues of Vogue magazine of the 1950s. All the characters absolutely look the part.

Into this comfortable suburban existence, Soderbergh injects a criminal enterprise which threatens to bring all the protagonists down. A scratch gang of unimpressive petty criminals, Curt Goynes (Don Cheadle), Ronald Russo (Benicio Del Toro) and Charley (Kieran Culkin) are recruited by Doug Jones (Brendan Fraser) to babysit the family of a middle manager, Matt Mertz (David Harbour) at gunpoint. Mertz is coerced into stealing some documents from a safe in a General Motors office downtown. The minor villains are paid handsomely but have no idea who is recruiting them and why the documents are so important. But work is work, especially in the constant motion of assembly-line Detroit.

Elmore Leonard, described as the ‘Dickens of Detroit’ by Time magazine, always wrote perceptively of the motor city, especially in his famed collection The Motor City Five, most particularly in City Primeval.


He once observed tellingly: ‘There are cities that get by on their good looks, offer climate and scenery, views of mountains or oceans, rockbound or with palm trees; and there are cities like Detroit that have to work for a living, whose reason for being might be geographical but whose growth is based on industry, jobs’.

Soderbergh traces the checkerboard of Detroit working life from the boardrooms to the barrooms. His characters blend easily into the settings, regardless of whether they are plush hotel leather chairs or cheap department store furniture in shabby apartments. Change is underway in Detroit but is urban renewal simply a reference to removing black residents from their neighbourhoods?

Soderbergh is an impressive director with a list of screen credits that include crime capers from Ocean’s Eight to Ocean’s Thirteen. His skills are evident in a diverse range of films which range across the spectrum from a clever biography of Liberace in Behind the Candelabra with Matt Damon and Michael Douglas to The Informant!, again with Matt Damon. Soderbergh’s working relationship with Damon is not lost in No Sudden Move.  This director always holds his audience, but he excels in No Sudden Move, beginning with the assembly of such a truly magnificent cast, including Jon Hamm as a Michigan detective, Vanessa Capelli (Julia Fox), the unfaithful and much abused wife of Vincent Capelli (Ray Liotta), a feared Mafia boss. The black gang boss, in the person of Aldrick Watkins (Bill Duke) is undeniably sinister but more effortlessly deliberate than some of his competitors.

But there are surprises among certain of the minor characters where performances stand out. In particular, the chain-smoking wife and mother Mary Wertz (Amy Seimetz) conveys all the emotions of a family bailed up by gangsters while son, Matthew (Noah Jupe), is a young actor who bears watching for the future.  The opportunistic and duplicitous secretary, Paula Cole (Frankie Shaw), who is having an affair with Matt Wertz while planning a getaway to California, adds an extra dimension of love and lust.

As a matter of fact, most of the criminals in this movie aspire to be somewhere else, if not California, then Las Vegas, Nevada. As for Goynes, like so many other losing figures in gangster films over the years, he is wanting one last score in Detroit that will take him to Kansas City. Ed Solomon has written a script where the language is defined by the grit of the motor city. Dialogue is sharp and suggestive. Motives might not always be readily apparent and there are unfolding waves in the plot which can confuse, initially, but are ultimately explained.

This is an appropriately dark film in terms of the lighting and cinematography, in the actual hands of Steven Soderbergh. The shadows dominate many of the internal scenes, which are lit only by corner lamps offering very limited projections of light. This is a movie in which everyone must tread warily.  The musical score by David Holmes adds to the sense of dread, verging on the mournful. As suspense builds, so too does the soundtrack in terms of the unmistakable arrival of very bad things.

There are few movies which convey Detroit and its auto industry successfully. Some like Tucker dwell on futile challenges to the giant automakers. Others, like Ford v Ferrari celebrate American corporate triumph on the asphalt. Paul Schrader’s Blue Collar comes closest to the grimness and corruption in the motor city and the working people who are ground down by industrial life. Schrader’s first superb film is complemented by a soundtrack featuring Captain Beefheart, which reinforces the raw edges in the film.

Soderbergh gives us a Detroit which has largely vanished and does so in a movie which does not pause in its carefully tiered narrative, courtesy of its seriously flawed characters, but neither does it lose its underlying sense of reality.

No Sudden Move is one of the best crime flicks made this century. It has all the crucial elements of cinematic success, including a plot which holds both traction and momentum and a cast which carries the tale to a dead reckoning.

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Stephen Loosley is a Senior Visiting Fellow at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.

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