Sixty-six years BC – Before Covid, I mean – Alfred Hitchcock arguably made the definitive lockdown film. In his 1954 masterpiece Rear Window, a man (James Stewart) is stuck indoors indefinitely on doctors’ orders, and kills the time by spying on his neighbours. Using his long-lens camera and a pair of binoculars, he channel-surfs between their apartments – a little romance here, musical numbers there – but the one that grips him is a domestic drama that veers into murder-mystery, and in which his own role shifts from onlooker to target.
With Kimi, director Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter David Koepp have dazzlingly updated Rear Window for the work-from-home age: their film puts a thrillingly contemporary spin on a vintage paranoia-drenched premise. Like Soderbergh’s first mid-pandemic project, last year’s Detroit-set crime drama No Sudden Move, Kimi is sidestepping cinemas for the internet and premium TV, and that’s a pity: its luxurious pin-drop suspense would surely play like a dream with a crowd.
Then again, its expert use of domestic isolation as a tension-ratcheting device might be all the more effective in a sofa-bound viewing, while its hyper-present digital gleam and refrigerated colour palette look exactly at home on the smaller screens to which our lives have lately become tied.
Kimi’s title refers to a buzzy new voice-assistant app, a fictional cousin of Alexa and Siri, well on the way to making its creator (Derek DelGaudio) millions. It’s corporate surveillance as status symbol – an adorable little speaker, eavesdropping on your every word – and its unique selling point is the human touch. Behind the scenes, a team of moderators sift through recordings of unresolved commands, adding the requisite lines of code to ensure that mistakes aren’t repeated.
Angela Childs (Zoë Kravitz) is one of them. This blue-haired introvert – whose social contact extends to occasional on-demand trysts with an accommodating lawyer (Byron Bowers) who lives across the street – is having a tough pandemic. Her obsessive-compulsive disorder has been inflamed by the ambient threat of viral infection, and her agoraphobia heightened by restrictions on movement, while a grim experience at her prior (in-person) job has also taken a psychological toll.
Additionally, her sensitivity to sound – there’s noisy building work afoot in the apartment upstairs, and the urban clamour outside proves deafening – suggests that autism is also in the mix. Yet it’s this final trait that allows her to catch a detail in an audio clipping that others might have missed: a woman’s scream, barely discernible over the background din of music. After she whittles down the sound wave, it becomes clear that a Kimi smart-speaker has inadvertently gathered evidence of a violent crime – and that evidence now sits on her desktop.
So what to do – and who to trust for help? Much like James Stewart’s Jeff, Angela’s only contact with the outside world is via windows: both the ones that overlook the neighbouring apartment block, and the ones on her computer, through which she talks to her mother, dentist, therapist and colleagues. Kravitz’s tremendous performance perfectly captures the all-too-familiar uneasy chemistry of these screen-to screen interactions. Sharp and detached, Angela isn’t one for forthright displays of emotion, yet Kravitz allows her feelings to leak out through body language, even in activities as mundane as applying hand sanitiser, or cleaning her teeth.
Her investigations eventually bring the story spilling onto the streets of Seattle, where Soderbergh stages a number of exemplary cat-and-mouse chase scenes, spiked with pure panic but also pulsing with playfulness. I loved that a virtuoso hacker attacks his keyboards to the strains of a Beethoven piano sonata, and that the two heavies who pursue Angela through an anonymous office building are of amusingly contrasting heights. And Cliff Martinez’s superb score, pairing churning synths with velvety woodwind and strings, deftly bridges the gap between the film’s cutting-edge and retro moods.
It’s hard to watch Kimi and not pine for the times when films this stylish, gripping and brisk were the work of major studios, rather than quick and thrifty independent productions. But on the other hand, when films this good can be had so quickly and thriftily, why protest?
15 cert, 89 min. Dir: Steven Soderbergh. On Sky Cinema from Saturday