When you call out for KIMI, both the sound and the substance of the voice are comforting. It’s a soft, female sound, providing an affirmation: “I’m here.” KIMI is a virtual assistant, like Siri and Alexa, but with the key difference of “people,” according to the CEO of the company that makes it. “We have actual people analyzing KIMI requests so we can continually update our understanding of how you communicate. Who you are. What you want.” Of course, they’re not actually making their customers’ lives easier – they’re just creating an illusion of ease, and the ubiquity of illusion is underscored when we see that CEO (Derek DelGaudio) finish his Zoom interview about the product, stand up to reveal the pajama pants under his suit top and leave the corner of his garage that he’s carefully arranged to look like a home office.
READ MORE: The Essentials: The Films Of Steven Soderbergh
So begins “KIMI,” the new thriller from director/cinematographer/editor Steven Soderbergh. KIMI is a product of The Amygdala Corporation (the kind of ominous-sounding name that you mind find in the ‘70s conspiracy thrillers Soderbergh so adores); Angela Childs (Zoe Kravitz) is a “voice stream interpreter” for the company, one of those “actual people” who go through error logs and makes adjustments to the AI software accordingly. She lives in a spacious Seattle apartment, and works from home – does everything from home, in fact, because she suffers from intense, debilitating anxiety. We see it manifested early on, when she makes plans to meet a neighbor from across the way and has a breakdown at her front door, which try as she might, she cannot push herself out of. Is this garden-variety agoraphobia? Or is it pandemic-induced? Or, more likely, is one feeding the other? (“Yeah, well, COVID was a little bit of a setback,” she admits.) She also seems to have a touch of OCD; some evenings, that neighbor (Byron Bowers) will come over for businesslike sex, after which she immediately strips the sheets, throws them in the washer, and all but throws him out as well. “Exhausting,” he mutters.
And then one night, while going through her error logs, Angela thinks she hears… something? Something strange? And maybe distressing? This scene of discovery and investigation explicitly (and intentionally) recalls “The Conversation”: she’s playing with the knobs, adjusting the levels, isolating and repeating, over and over, searching for clarity. And then she hears more. Much, much more.
Angela is one of the meatiest roles of Kravitz’s career to date, and she does right by it, investing the character with memorable physical quirks and authentic touches. Her anxiety and issues aren’t soft-peddled; when she has that early breakdown, it’s real and convincing, powerful but not overwrought, and it has to be, since the shadow of it hangs over every interaction that follows. She’s an empathetic and charismatic actor, and she builds sympathy for this woman – you’ll find yourself invested in her and her safety. And that’s perilous because this could also sideways. Soderbergh doesn’t always do happy endings.
The supporting cast is admirably eccentric: aside from the aforementioned DelGaudio, we have Andy Daly as a nervous middle manager (experiencing the deeply relatable moment of losing it with his screaming kids during a Zoom call: “You are making me insane! I am gonna take everything you love and put it in a garbage bag!”), and Rita Wilson as a company higher-up giving the most Concerned White Lady vibes imaginable (“Angela, you’re a very strong, brave woman”). It first just seems like a throwaway character, or even a caricature, before we realize what David Koepp’s smart screenplay is doing; she’s a walking embodiment of girlboss workplace sexual politics, the idea of paying lip service without actually doing anything.
Soderbergh’s direction is, per usual, tight and efficient (as is his editing – it runs a lean, mean 89 minutes). He conceives a fairly ingenious visual manifestation of Angela’s condition, shooting and composing the scenes in her apartment – a controlled environment – in a sleek, locked-down, direct style but adopting a more frenetic, handheld, low-angle aesthetic when she’s forced to go out into the world, a place where everything feels out of control. Also striking is how deftly he uses sound, specifically the absolute pin-drop silence of her noise-canceling headphones, a tool of the work she does, but also an escape hatch from the world.
The inventiveness of the sound design also allows us to piece the mystery together alongside her, as bits and pieces of overheard sound pop into the surround channels with the force of music stings. In little moments like that throughout the picture, it becomes clear that Soderbergh is truly crafting these HBO Max titles for the environment where they’ll be seen; it seems like a film specifically modulated to play in a home theater space (as opposed to the vast majority of Netflix movies, which seem configured for the same bland 3rd generation iPad settings).
Soderbergh also seems to have a great time just playing in the thriller sandbox, from the elegant simplicity of the third act chase (she’s merely trying to get from one place to another while evading surveillance, but it’s a nail-biter) to the genuinely harrowing bit with an attempted van kidnapping to the delightful mechanics of everything he’s doing in the “Wait Until Dark”-style climax. And the score, by Soderbergh’s career-long collaborator Cliff Martinez, masterfully fuses his modern electronica vibe with a classic Hitchcockian suspense theme; it genuinely sounds like some sort of bastard child of Brian Eno and Bernard Herrmann, but also slyly funny, that rare mixture of both heartfelt homage and wink.
There is also a sense, throughout “KIMI,” that the director is returning to previous preoccupations. He took an earlier (less successful) run at the “unstable” woman narrative in “Unsane,” and this new film is filled with similar reminders of the danger women face by just… being a woman in the world (“I searched your address records, it wasn’t hard,” she’s told, at a key moment, by a sympathetic male character). And the film’s tacit and explicit acknowledgments of not only the pandemic (a too rare occurrence in new movies) but its psychological fallout remind us of “Contagion,” his fictional exploration of such an event, over a decade ago. This one summons up a similar sense of dread and doom, but on a much smaller scale, and if the final beat feels a bit too neat and tidy, well, what the hell, they’ve earned it. [A-]
“Kimi” premieres Thursday on HBO Max.