Steven Soderbergh has long been one of cinema’s M.V.P.s, a position that he (happily) shows no signs of relinquishing. Since 2016, after a brief retirement from moviemaking, he has found a new auteurist groove with modest resources, fast shoots, boundless energy and a striking lack of preciosity about the medium. His latest, “KIMI” — his seventh feature in five years — is among his recent best. It’s also only on HBO Max, which is too bad given that Soderbergh makes movies even when he settles for the small screen.
A lean and tense nerve-shredder set in the uneasy now, “KIMI” is a story of survival in the face of rational and irrational fears, those triggered by the pandemic but also by ordinary life. I haven’t felt so seen by a movie in ages, at least until the knives and guns come out. But that’s getting ahead of the tricky, tangled story, which centers on Angela Childs (an excellent Zoë Kravitz), a tech analyst who works out of her sprawling Seattle loft, her eyes either fixed on her multiple screens or gazing through her large pane windows.
The pandemic seems to be waning (hallelujah!), but not for Angela. She has issues, as her telemedicine shrink would agree, most obviously her inability to leave the house. Her concerns are reasonable given the global malady. Yet the depth of her problems, as well as the ritualistic quality of her behaviors — how she moves through her loft and automatically pumps hand sanitizer — suggest that she has an obsessive-compulsive disorder. She makes her bed like a Marine, smoothing the bedding into submission; she also scrubs her teeth and body so forcefully that you wonder if she’s punishing herself.
Angela is one of the mysteries in “KIMI,” which after a smooth, economic warm-up quickly gets its creep on. The weirdness starts with the Alexa-like virtual assistant of the title. The latest in high-tech convenience, KIMI has useful functionality and an innocuous physical design. It looks like a softly squashed, truncated cone; better yet, it sounds like Sigourney Weaver. (It’s voiced by Betsy Brantley, Soderbergh’s ex.) KIMI can answer easy questions and dim the lights without disrupting the flow of life. And KIMI offers the veneer of sympathetic companionship without the bother of other living creatures.
Soderbergh rapidly plots the coordinates of Angela’s life, seamlessly in sync with Kravitz’s precise, sensitively controlled performance and David Koepp’s clever, streamlined script. After an enigmatic prelude, the setting shifts to Angela’s loft, a space that’s at once comfortably intimate and expansive enough that you can’t see all its dark corners at once. Even so, Angela seems at ease and in control, even if the distinctive camerawork — which isn’t always tethered to her P.O.V. — suggests forces beyond her control. Like KIMI, the floaty, drifty (pushy, nosy) camera seems to have a mind of its own.
Angela’s job is to resolve communication bugs in KIMI. She listens to recordings of the software’s botched interactions with users and corrects the glitches, an otherwise uneventful, routinized gig that’s upended when she thinks she hears a violent crime on one recording. She’s shaken, but because Angela is more complex than she first seems, she gets busy. She chases clues, calls in favors. And she reaches out for help from a regular hookup (Byron Bowers), an obstreperous Romanian colleague (Alex Dobrenko) and a supervisor (a perfect, perfectly appalling Rita Wilson). Things get weird, and then they get scary.
If you think you’ve seen this movie, you have and you haven’t. “KIMI” self-consciously draws from an assortment of cinematic referents, including obvious touchstones like “Rear Window” and woman-in-peril-at-home thrillers like “Midnight Lace.” Koepp wrote one of the best contemporary takes on the domestic mousetrap subgenre, “Panic Room,” which was directed by Soderbergh’s buddy David Fincher. A shot of some dropped eyeglasses here reads like a hat tip to a similar image in Fincher’s movie, which in turn nods at Sam Peckinpah’s “Straw Dogs,” a far less female-friendly trouble-at-home flick.
As Angela digs into the mystery of the recording, “KIMI” begins shifting into a spookier register. In time, she is forced to leave her apartment, an exit that liberates and terrifies her, and also frees up Soderbergh. (He shot and edited the movie.) Once she actually gets past her front door, her physicality abruptly changes and so does the movie’s visual style. She hunches her shoulders, bows her head and hugs the walls, and the camerawork becomes emphatically expressionistic as Soderbergh pulls out all his tricks, clearly having a blast. The camera swoops and races, and he deploys long shots and canted angles, isolating Angela in the frame as she rushes into a paranoid thriller à la “Blow-Up” and “The Conversation.”
One of the queasy draws of women-in-peril-at-home movies is how they make literal the dangers that can lurk in traditionally feminized, ostensibly safe domestic spaces. Sometimes the threats are familiar and come in the form of husbands and lovers; at other times, the dangers sneak or burst in from outside. One way or another, the damsel is distressed, a figure that “KIMI” revisits through a constellation of ideas about technology, surveillance, control and agency. Angela has effectively barricaded herself in her apartment, yet nevertheless remains tethered to the big, bad, threatening world.
However scary that world and however freaky Angela’s situation, Soderbergh never lets the movie get too heavy. Even as the vibe shifts and the atmosphere grows more ominous, he maintains a lightness of touch and a visual playfulness that keeps the movie securely in the realm of pop pleasure. There’s a lot to enjoy about “KIMI”; I’d watch it a third time just for the delirious 180-degree camera move that bookends it. But I especially love how it turns another staple from classic noir and the paranoid thriller, the (usually) male protagonist who nobody believes, into a woman whose paranoia is as righteous as it is right.
Rated R for bad technology and violence. Running time: 1 hours 29 minutes. Watch on HBO Max.