A huge part of my appreciation for Steven Soderbergh actually comes from my least favorite of his films, The Good German. On that film, Soderbergh told a 1940s style film using 1940s style filming techniques. Gone were the close-ups and easy after-the-fact audio recordings of most modern films, instead The Good German is shot with wide angle lens requiring precise composition and boom mikes capturing the on-set audio. What sort of mad genius eschews the comforts of modern filmmaking to attempt this sort of project? I don’t think the movie works at all but what an amazing effort to understand the history of filmmaking in such an intimate and immediate way. Hell, what sort of mad genius decides to start shooting movies like High Flying Bird and Unsane on iPhones? Soderbergh is the purest sort of nerd for his craft. His Extension 765 blog sees the director meticulously tracks each film, show, book, play, and short he watches each year – he consumes more film than most critics while still finding the time to fire off a fascinating movie or two every single year.
Each new Soderbergh release is an for me event. A huge part of the appeal is that you never know what you’re going to get. You might get Meryl Streep, Dianne Wiest, Candice Bergen, and Lucas Hedges improvising a movie. You might get Channing Tatum road tripping with his stripper buddies. You might get George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez in the coolest, sexiest crime movie of an entire decade. Nothing about his filmography feels safe. Nothing feels regurgitated. Even his sequels like Ocean’s 12 and 13 or Magic Mike XXL shift the formula of their predecessors in interesting new ways.
And so when Soderbergh decides to make a crime thriller overtly inspired by one of his favorite films, The Conversation, every movie nerd should be excited. I am delighted to report that Kimi absolutely rocks.
Kimi takes its title from the Alexa-like device at the film’s core. Zoë Kravitz stars as a tech engineer tasked with listening to inputs the device failed to comprehend with an audio expert’s ear. Her job requires her to resolve each unclear recording so the machine’s comprehension can improve. Terrifyingly enough, this is also a job that exists in real life, which served as the inspiration for the film.
Kravitz’s Angela is largely a shut-in in loving echoes of another Soderbergh influence: Rear Window. Thanks to a debilitating case of agoraphobia exacerbated by the effects of the COVID pandemic even opening her front door is a struggle. And so when she hears something concerning on a recording, she’s forced out of her home to make sure the case is properly investigated. The actual audio processing itself is a nifty feat of design: as Angela puts on her headphones all the sound in the film drops away except for what she chooses to play, and re-play, and re-play again. As she tinkers with the levels of audio files, we’re given a very realistic feeling primer in just how precisely audio recordings can be adjusted with sufficient expertise. The sound design, Kravitz’s face, and taut editing combine to make fiddling with a few nobs into crackerjack cinema.
When the sounds of an apparent murder are revealed, Angela is compelled to act. Met with corporate indifference to her findings, Angela is forced to have to head out into Seattle. As she leaves the safety of her apartment, Soderbergh’s filming style changes. Gone are the calm static shots and elegant cuts that make up her home life replaced by severe angles and staccato editing on the outside world. The lighting, warm and inviting inside, becomes almost oversaturated as she tries to avoid the people around her. It’s exciting, evocative filmmaking.
Though conceived of by writer David Koepp (Jurassic Park, Spider-Man) in The Before Times, Kimi is very much a film that exists in a COVID world. Some films and shows have addressed the pandemic by filming over Zoom (perhaps Natalie Morales’ Language Lessons is the best example of the genre) while others have tossed masks on characters when it will not distract from the rest of the plot. Kimi feels like one of the first films to engage with the pandemic in a dramatically useful and compelling way. Angela’s own mental health concerns were impacted by COVID and so the pandemic serves as a sort of omnipresent secondary villain hovering over her paranoia. While big tech companies directly paper over privacy violations in the name of hitting stock goals, the pandemic forces an even greater reliance on those companies.
There’s a nifty array of supporting players here, as usual in Soderbergh’s films. Rita Wilson (Runaway Bride) is an absolute delight as Angela’s slyly dismissive boss. Byron Bowers (Honey Boy) is compelling as a fuckbuddy neighbor. A number of bit players appear over video calls and each manages to land a memorable moment.
The real star here, however, is Zoë Kravitz. She is front and center in every minute of the film and absolutely delivers. From small roles in franchise pictures like X-Men: First Class, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, and Mad Max: Fury Road to poorly received mid budget projects like Kin and Rough Night, no film has given her a proper showcase for her talents. Her TV work, especially in Big Little Lies and High Fidelity, has been the clearer indicator of her skills. It is difficult to make a character listening compelling, but Kravitz nails the feat. And she manages the balance of respectfully playing a character with mental health issues extremely well. It’s really a statement performance for a young actor on the rise.
Finally, the film runs a brisk, exciting 89 minutes and wraps with an exciting last act that may be some of Soderbergh’s most visceral filmmaking. It seems he is the rare director who has figured out how to tell compelling stories for a streaming service that embraces the flexibility of a modest budget and minimal studio meddling. Sign me up for a new Soderbergh film on HBO Max every couple of months.
Kimi premieres on HBO Max tomorrow, February 10, 2022.