Director: Steven Soderbergh
Starring: Zoe Kravitz, Byron Bowers, Jamie Cavil, Rita Wilson
Have you ever had that weird chill shoot down your spine after asking a request of Siri or Alexa and having them instantly provide answers or services quick as a whip? Are our computers and phones listening to us all the time? Are the secrets and nuances of our day-to-day lives being archived and dissected by corporate boogeymen via these groundbreaking technology advances? These are extremely modern but concerning chords of fear that Steven Soderbergh plucks for all they’re worth in his taut, effective new thriller Kimi.
In a long-running trend dating back to his masterful 1989 Palme d’Or winning Sex, Lies, and Videotape (which put him on the map for most American audiences), Soderbergh has a yen for taking current technological advancements and crafting serpentine storylines around both our excitement and healthy fear of these devices and their capabilities. In 1989, it was Andie MacDowell turning the emotional tables on James Spader’s voyeur with a handheld video camera. Now in 2022, it’s Zoe Kravitz’s Hitchcockian protagonist overhearing a violent crime through a computer program and then attempting to do the right thing through overbearingly difficult – and possibly deadly – obstacles.
As brought to life by Soderbergh, screenwriter David Koepp, and a remarkably nuanced and detailed performance by Zoe Kravitz, our protagonist Angela Childs is a Seattle-based young woman working as a “voice stream interpreter” for the parent tech company’s voice assistant called Kimi (sound familiar?) which uses actual human interpreters like Angela, rather than algorithms, to analyze and respond to user requests. Angela suffers from anxiety, OCD (seemingly), and crippling agoraphobia stemming from a previous assault and exacerbated by the lockdowns associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. She maintains a casual romance with Terry (Byron Bowers), a kind lawyer who lives across the street, but he has grown impatient with the strains her agoraphobia has put on their relationship.
Kravitz’s performance is fascinating in the ways in which she lays the groundwork of communicating Angela’s issues to the audience. Early in the film when she attempts to leave the house to simply go out to a food truck for breakfast, her struggle becomes alarming. As someone who is no stranger to a panic attack, Kravitz expertly communicates the crippling physicality and embarrassing reality of one. We notice her constantly cleansing her hands with hand sanitizer (the ritualistic way that she waves her hands to dry them after each use is a nice character touch by Kravitz), and she instantly strips her sheets after sex to wash them while Terry is still in bed trying to bask a little in the afterglow. There are intriguing parallels in the way she crafts an exaggerated social media presence to give the illusion that she is vacationing and enjoying a “normal” life, but the film is quick to point out that this practice actually applies to almost all social media users. “Who lives a fake life online?” Angela is asked by a colleague. “Literally everyone,” she drolly replies.
While reviewing voice streams, Angela overhears an alarming recording that sounds like a violent crime being perpetrated on a woman in peril. She cunningly uses her technological know-how to mix the levels of the recording to single out a disturbing voice interaction. In the vein of many Hitchcock heroes or even Kyle MacLachlan’s plucky interloper in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986), she is compelled to keep digging and gathering more information, even if it gets her in way over her head. The curiosity and drive to do the right thing and solve the mystery are overwhelming, and the film transitions into thriller territory when we realize that Angela’s efforts may put her in direct danger as well as force her to face some of her own personal demons head-on.
The particular afflictions of Angela, and the treatment of her by others, play on a lot of simple, natural human fears beyond the technological as well. When she attempts to report the possible crime, an icy executive (well-played by Rita Wilson) brings up her prior mental health related absence from work as a negative. Much like in Soderbergh’s previous thrillers Side Effects (2013)and Unsane (2018), mental health is effectively weaponized here in a frightening way, especially in a time when many people in the world are struggling and would not necessarily relish the thought of it being trudged out of our permanent record in a time of crisis. The universal fear of signing “Terms and Conditions” without reading all of the fine print is mined here. Additionally, the thread of Angela’s worsening toothache throughout the movie works our nerves seeing as how dental problems are always alarming, especially the idea of struggling through one when you physically can’t leave the house to even go out to the street, let alone get a much-needed root canal.
This set-up all leads, of course, to events in which Angela is forced to confront her fears and venture out into the streets of Seattle. Without spoiling anything, I praise Soderbergh’s deft use of visuals (through intense, oppressive handheld camera work) and sound to capture a suffocating outside world. Kravitz mirrors this with perfect small touches like the way she sticks near the walls of the buildings she passes, trying to find sanctuary even in the big bad world.
When all is said and done, the story resolves in a somewhat typical crime thriller way that is satisfying but sort of routine – however, I was tickled by the return of a particular household weapon toward the end that seemed to be a staple of lurid thrillers of the 1990s. I also was given pause by the odd casting of Jane the Virgin’s Jamie Camil in a rare serious role; his performance just didn’t have the right note needed for his type of role. Ultimately, it is Kravitz’s unique performance, the immediacy and timeliness of Koepp’s story, and Soderbergh’s inspired direction that make Kimi one of the best films of the early new year.