“Every time in a while, perhaps as an exercise in humility, Steven Soderbergh makes a truly inexplicable film,” wrote Roger Ebert in his 2002 review of Soderbergh’s film. Full frontal. Ebert is gone, alas, so I’ll say it – the last inexplicable Soderbergh is here.
It is cause for celebration, however, not consternation. Even when the prolific and uneven Soderbergh is in throwing mode, he doesn’t make boring movies. His last, Kimi, which premiered Thursday on HBO Max, is a lighthearted, lively thriller either saddled or enhanced — it’s hard to say — by bizarre narrative choices. The result is a shift rear window update who dares to ask the question, What if, instead of Jimmy Stewart looking out the window with a broken leg, we watch Zoë Kravitz listen to audio collected by a smart home device while battling a long period of trauma-induced agoraphobia?
The plot itself is quite simple, especially compared to Soderbergh’s last film, No sudden movement, who stacked double crosses on top of each other until the truth wavered. Here, the villains are clear, as is the hero. Angela Childs (Kravitz) works for tech company Amygdala, which is about to go public thanks to its Kimi device, a competitor to Alexa and Siri. Childs spends his days in a sprawling, immaculate industrial loft in Seattle, listening to audio snippets flagged for human interpretation and occasionally joking with his tech support colleague in Romania. When she’s not working, she watches the news while spinning on an exercise bike, obsessively brushing her teeth, video conferencing with her mother and psychiatrist, or inviting her neighbor across the street, Terry. (Bryan Bowers), to connect. One day, she hears an audio clip that sounds like a violent crime. When she attempts to report what she hears to Amygdala, she becomes the target of powerful people who don’t want the audio to leak.
The story as a whole is pretty regular cat-and-mouse fare. The film’s core weirdness, however, seeps into the details. Angela, you see, is severely agoraphobic and won’t leave her apartment, despite a painful tooth infection. And yet, Angela has an electric blue bob with baby bangs. Call me a haircut (literally), but this extremely demanding hairstyle would be very difficult to pull off at home on your own. It’s hard to imagine a look that simply screams “five o’clock date at the salon with regular trims” more explicitly. And yes, this movie is set in a slightly alternate universe where Covid-19 happened, but Seattle is also troubled by political protests against laws to limit homeless people’s movements, so maybe in this world, there have been major advancements in at-home DIY coloring, but come on.
Another distraction: Why is Angela so rich? She’s a glorified content moderator, but she lives in a sprawling Seattle loft like some sort of modern-day Frasier Crane. There’s an offhand comment that her dad helped her renovate, but still – are we watching a movie about a trust fund baby who just chooses to work hard in a mid-level content analyst role ( the best) ? In contrast, Amygdala CEO Bradley Hasling (Derek DelGaudio) is shown early in the film on a teleconference from a makeshift workspace in his garage. Why doesn’t this man have a home office? It’s the third year of the pandemic, and he’s in the C suite! If this was, say, a Nancy Meyers movie, we could skip the weird setting choices. But Soderbergh is generally quite attuned to class distinctions.
Angela is inexplicable, which is not the same as complex. She is suspicious and cautious, but also naively listens to her bosses when they tell her not to write anything down and come to the office rather than alert the authorities. Her agoraphobia gives Soderbergh an excuse to deploy a shaky music-video-style camera when she finally ventures into the streets, but she otherwise has an added element, as if the original draft of the screenplay had notes that her protagonist had. needed more obstacles to overcome than disreputable tech overlords shooting for his life. Her romance with her neighbor also feels injected into the film as an attempt to tick a box.