starring Zoë Kravitz, Rita Wilson, Derek DelGaudio, Robin Givens
written by David Koepp
directed by Steven Soderbergh
by Walter Chaw Steven Soderbergh's Kimi is an escapist paranoia fantasy that has as its most unlikely conceit not any of its dire depictions of a techno-surveillance state, but that it's possible for wealthy white men to see anything like consequences for their actions--actions up to, and including, murder. It may be Soderbergh and screenwriter David Koepp's cleverest sting in a clever film, this notion that at a time when satire feels impossible because reality is so obscene, the greatest stretch of the imagination is the promise of meaningful accountability for the 1%. You could call it Pollyannaism or toxic positivity (and I confess my first response to how this movie ends was irritation), but I've come to realize how that speaks more to my disappointment with the world than with the story Kimi is trying to tell. This isn't Night Moves or The Parallax View (or, more to the point, The Conversation or Blow Out), it's a fable about how trauma can be overcome, justice can be won, and the bad guys don't necessarily have to win every time. It could even be about how the future is minority and female and work-from-home. Or, thanks to one superb sequence, Kimi could be about a rejection of our desperate longing for superhuman intervention. Maybe it's each of those things at once. All a revolution takes is enough individuals, flawed as they are, broken as they may be, deciding they're mad as hell and aren't going to take it anymore. All it would take is cutting through the noise and the moral cannibalism and finally painting a target on our common tormentors.
Our hero is Angela Childs (Zoë Kravitz), a machine-learning tech for an Alexa-like AI assistant called "KIMI." Her job is to listen for the times KIMI misunderstands a consumer's command and correct its programming so that it'll "learn" how to better respond to those queries in the future. Childs works from home--partly because of the pandemic, partly because her job lends itself to it, but mainly because she suffered an assault and is now shackled by anxiety and agoraphobia to her apartment. One morning, she has a panic attack while trying to arrange a date at the breakfast-sandwich cart with her boyfriend Terry (Bryan Bowers), who lives across the street. I use the term "boyfriend" loosely: Terry is getting frustrated over not being able to take Childs out sometimes. They meet for afternoon delights on occasion, only to have Childs fill the afterglow by stripping the bed and putting everything into the wash immediately.
She texts him when she sees him eating takeout by himself, and he peers up out his window to look through her window, making a face one would hope is an appropriate response to your lover spying on you. The punchline to this sequence is that Childs is being watched herself. The unobserved observer is Kevin (Devin Ratray), whom we identify instantly as a creeper because we've been programmed to think of his kind of voyeurism as a defining characteristic rather than how loneliness and, yes, trauma have put him in the same fix as Childs. It's a moment remarkable for its complexity, challenging why we care for and worry about Childs but instantly dislike and fear Kevin. At the bottom of it all, these images of people in isolation manufacturing intimacy are images of us all navigating our periods of forced isolation.
Of the things Kimi succeeds at, what it does best is paint a picture of the desperate need for someone who has had control taken away from them to try to take it back--however, wherever they can. Childs's job is an extension of her trauma response, unheeded in her moment of greatest need and peril. Now she makes a living ensuring that strangers are correctly understood. Her job requires empathy, intuition, and intelligence, yet because she's had a mental break that has caused others to question her reliability, when she hears what she thinks is at first a sexual assault, then a murder, of course no one believes her. Well, that is, until they do. Kimi is a superb updating of Anatole Litvak's Sorry, Wrong Number, in which Barbara Stanwyck plays a bed-bound shut-in who accidentally overhears a murder plot on her party line. The transition from Stanwyck to Kravitz by itself suggests a certain intentional if not self-conscious changing of the guard, even as the filmmakers remain decidedly white and male. When Childs finally breaks through the bramble of red tape intended to discourage reporting something to Human Resources, her interaction with the head of HR, Chowdhury (Rita Wilson), is terrifying for its bland malevolence.
Wilson plays Chowdhury as a maternal snake oozing corporatespeak with a lifer's fluency. If you've ever worked for a corporation of any size, you'll recognize her instantly. Much of Kimi is familiar. In a discursive way, it reminded me of Danger Mouse's bootleg "The Grey Album" that mixes Jay-Z's "The Black Album" with samples from The Beatles' "The White Album" to create something vital and new. Soderbergh combines Hitchock with Polanski, DePalma with Coppola. Mostly Kimi's a take on '70s paranoia cinema where no one is to be trusted and faceless corporations are monitoring your every move to be sure you're toeing the line. Except there's a legible villain to Kimi, the crypto-nerd Zuckerberg/Musk surrogate Hasling (Derek DelGaudio), who gets interviewed on financial TV programs from a set in his garage. And because there's a villain, no matter how bland, there's the possibility of vengeance that's...well, let's just say the last thing I expected from a movie with this kind of cinematic parentage is anything like a positive outcome for our heroic pawn.
One scene sells it for me, though. Hired goons in a black van abduct Childs next to a crowd protesting one of any myriad of social injustices--a development that in a lesser film would lead to her imprisonment, interrogation, and escape. In Kimi, it stirs the anonymous protestors to band together to free a stranger from what they assume is a governmental agency. In many ways, Kimi is a rejection of the notion of superheroes. Salvation won't come from divine intervention, though it may come from the decision of the powerless to no longer accept their powerlessness. When even anti-heroic Kevin takes on a heroic posture, when Childs arms herself with a contractor's tools to free herself from corporate assassins who've assembled to silence her, Soderbergh is making choices to frame the resolution of this picture as a triumph of the oppressed. Kimi is a rejection of despair and an illustration of a way forward using references to the doom-laden thrillers of our last paranoid age. We got through it then, he says; maybe we'll get through it again.