Steven Soderbergh treats an exacting sense of routine quite playfully in Kimi, available to stream now on HBO Max, imbuing it with a manner that feels effacing in the most familiar, or firsthand, of ways. As the prolific director (and editor, and director of photography, as usual) of this, the first trio of Ocean’s films, Logan Lucky, and last year’s made-in-Detroit No Sudden Move, Soderbergh knows quite a bit about control.
Heists and thrillers are Soderbergh’s longtime specialty: tools he weaponizes to examine the workings and vulnerabilities of institutional power structures. (The difference between the two genres, mainly, is who — the individual or the structural force — is on the attack.) He returns here with another thriller, following a young woman named Angela (Zoë Kravitz) employed remotely by the Amygdala Corporation, which manufactures a product called Kimi. As creators of a surveillance system à la Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, and other peppy digital matrons, Amygdala press a questionable but increasingly standard-issue bargain: if users consent, often unwittingly, to suspensions of their privacy, they can receive a range of services from within their homes.
In combing through recordings to optimize Kimi’s responsiveness as part of her job, Angela stumbles upon some likely evidence of a crime, and seeks immediately to report it to her supervisors to prevent further harm. Angela’s agoraphobic, though, and living through the COVID-19 pandemic on top of it. She’s anxious, somewhat traumatized, grinds her teeth, and has more than a few compulsive habits. She lives cooped up in her orderly Seattle loft, where she exercises, goes to therapy, works, and occasionally hosts men — or perhaps just one man. When she does speak with other people (mostly online), conversations are inflected with firm, sometimes severe assertions of verbal and personal boundaries. Soderbergh seems to relate to this rigidity and firmity of purpose, which scans as even more justifiable now than usual; a pandemic seems as good a time as any to consider strongly who and what we allow into our lives.
Angela’s employers at Amygdala Corp. cross their fingers that most don’t read the fine print in their terms of service, pitching their army of workers as their distinguishing trait (“People: it’s our people and our level of excellence that sets us apart,” opines one slimy exec). Amygdala’s not entirely wrong about being defined by its staff, though they might be less the exception than the rule. Kimi’s vision of technology, then, is less conventionally alarmist than rightly suspicious — not so much of novel tools themselves but of the people and entities behind them. In redeploying all the biases of their makers — the softly misogynistic paternalism of their naming schemas, the more forceful, unapologetic incursions on privacy, or the false palliative gestures ladled out by middle managers — the technologies Kimi depicts are exactly as foul as the people behind them, even as its inciting incident suggests their potential for some good.
The film’s setup is not original in this, nor does it pretend to be. As part of a lineage of paranoid works including Blow-Up (1966), The Conversation (1974), and Blow Out (1981) — all trailing Hithcock and featuring media-based artists and technicians stumbling by chance upon probable crimes — the ironies Kimi toys with are as old as the recorded image. As a surveillance technician who’s a self-questioning cog in a broader system, Angela’s work is not so troubling on an individual level as was Gene Hackman’s similarly isolated figure from The Conversation — but that’s part of Kimi’s insight into modern living. In tracking the increasingly systematized, segmented, and broadly contracted-out systems of labor that drive an increasingly tech-centered global economy, the role individual actors play proves at once integral and infinitesimal, with questions of responsibility, which must belong somewhere, scanning as little more than a flickering mirage.
As someone attuned to abuse as more than a momentary workplace headache, Angela’s an exception to what her employers demand in a world of maximally alienated labor not only for assuming any form of social responsibility but in harboring any humanistic principles at all. In establishing clear boundaries, refusing to make charitable assumptions, and approaching those around her with a defiant, questioning stance, Angela’s bound to be in the right for doing so more than any of us would like.
But as sympathetic as Soderbergh is to this closely guarded sense of control — seeing so much of paranoia as simply observant, worldly, and fair — the choice of what to keep out of one’s life remains inseparable from that of what one lets in. By working in an exceptionally lean mode and allowing Angela the dignity of stubborn imperfections, Soderbergh — with the help of perennial composer Cliff Martinez, screenwriter David Koepp, and, of course, Kravitz — manages to avoid self-seriousness or an easy valorization of his lead. Instead, he and his collaborators provide without much fuss a way to understand.
Despite following in the brusque, workmanlike footsteps of Angela in its air of businesslike concision and directness, the film remains light on its feet, working playfully with technique. With roving, often dramatically canted camerawork and honed, linear editing fueled by a varied, sometimes neoclassical score, Kimi’s a small enough production to focus on doing each thing well. In its focused tension — between the film’s brute, rapidly-paced narrative movements and the interlocking forms of play within its form — Soderbergh manages better than usual to approximate his main character’s psychology, getting at his lead’s inner life. In this, it offers more than a tidy allegory about the invisible moral and bureaucratic labyrinths of modern life, looking into the far messier struggles of venturing out and opening up. In coupling these themes, it gets at the very nature of security as a tense field of negotiation between the public and private, and in bothering to gauge who and what to trust, we engage in the still-weightier task of deciding what materials to build a life from, hoping to carve out an existence worth protecting. The fact that as fleet and pleasurable s little thriller as Kimi can get at all this makes it more than worth taking in.