Steven Soderbergh’s big-screen projects are a testament to his love of a good crime caper. From the Ocean’s films on through to his recent cinematic return with Logan Lucky, the director’s fondness for a well-executed plan—or just an executed plan, really, no skill required—shines through. The only thing he might love more is an unreliable narrator, that hallmark of so much of his oeuvre which allows him the freedom to play around with everything from plot to perspective to structure itself. But with Mosaic, his new six-part miniseries for HBO, Soderbergh has crafted what might be his ultimate statement of purpose on that tactic: a story about stories, a murder without a body, and an entire narrative that unfolds within a show in which the camerawork forces you to rethink everything any character says.
Soderbergh’s formal mastery is long-established, but what makes this new miniseries especially good is how it uses the framework of a standard-issue mystery to interrogate our understanding of storytelling conventions. More specifically, the entire concept of our own vision and command of facts as a deeply fallible enterprise, one in which there are no easy answers—or possibly any answers at all. He lingers on faces long past the point when characters have ostensibly received useful intel. He shifts focus from the person talking to the back of another person, pulling our attention away from the conversation and into the realm of pure body language. And his camerawork executes hard cuts to small, seemingly insignificant details that drew the eye of someone in the scene. Does it mean something? Or is this just another way we look for meaning when none is to be found? We long for the solution to puzzles, to assign weight to random interactions, to craft a coherent whole from disparate pieces. In its very title, Mosaic reminds us that we build understandable images from unrelated parts. The show proceeds to demonstrate that, in the world of stories no less than our everyday lives, our desire to make sense of things constantly leads us down the wrong path.
From its opening scene of a cop telling someone they’re about to be arrested for murder, the series asks the viewer whether it’s possible to withhold judgment, knowing full well we’ll be unable to contain our prejudices and suspicions as the mystery deepens. It then jumps four years into the past, with renowned children’s author and illustrator Olivia Lake (Sharon Stone, giving what is easily one of her best performances) taking in an aspiring young illustrator (Garrett Hedlund) on whom she nurtures an obvious attraction. Instead, we quickly pivot to a con man, Eric (Frederick Weller), hired by Olivia’s neighbors to try and seduce her and thereby get her to sell her land—acreage in Summit, Utah that has one of those “secretly valuable” explanations that’s never discussed much. The two quickly cohabitate, and it seems like all is going according to devious plan. But as we know from that first scene, all of this will end in death, nobody’s intentions are quite what they seem, and without giving anything away, it’s safe to say almost nothing will end up happening the way you suspect.
Before returning to Soderbergh’s brilliant upending of convention, some other plaudits should be distributed, because this series has plenty to go round. Writer Ed Solomon (whose fascinating credits include both the screenplay for Bill And Ted’s Excellent Adventure and the first Charlie’s Angels film, not to mention the Now You See Me franchise) has concocted a wonderfully tangled plot, one that thrives on the naturalism of its dialogue and the pedestrian nature of its best reveals. More than a few times, Mosaic feels like a particularly good Robert Altman film, a show that would rather follow side characters as they maunder through humdrum experiences that define their lives, as opposed to tracking the pulse-pounding thrill of the hunt for a killer. Every major character gets a few beats that step away from the investigation, showcasing the very normal-sized lives that are caught up in a larger-than-life plot.
And those characters are embodied by actors who obviously savored the opportunity to shine. Soderbergh has always had a deft touch with his performers, coaxing lived-in and compelling portrayals out of nearly everyone who has crossed in front of his camera’s line of sight, and this is no exception. Stone is really only there for a portion of the proceedings, yet her aging and insecure author is indelible, mostly for how fragile she makes the brittle and oft-dickish writer, even at her most gung ho. Hedlund similarly comes alive, with Soderbergh giving the previously wooden actor a platform to shine, essentially the round two of what he managed for Channing Tatum in Magic Mike and Side Effects.
But while everyone brings their A game, even in cameo-level appearances from Allison Tolman and James Ransone, the real delight is a dazzlingly humane star turn by Devin Ratray, a longtime character actor usually relegated to minor comic-relief roles (half of the two oafish brothers in Nebraska is probably his best-known gig), who delivers one of those performances that leave you gobsmacked by the pure magnetism of his realism. As the good-natured sheriff increasingly bothered by the idea he might have kept quiet while an innocent man went to jail, Ratray’s guileless potency is a marvel, a conflicted husband and man of the people trying desperately to hold on to his even-keeled attitude while events around him start to spin far out of control. It’s a perfect alignment of actor and role, and Ratray makes the most of it, with a soulful performance that lingers on well past the time the final ambiguous image cuts to black, a modern-day Jimmy Stewart of decency and frustration. Based purely on this series, he deserves to become a brutally in-demand actor any director should count their lucky stars to land.
Unfortunately, this project is also a multi-media undertaking, and so we have to reference the mobile app released in conjunction with the miniseries. Mosaic was always intended to be an interactive feature in tandem with the show, with press releases touting much hoo-hah about the exciting interconnected and puzzle-box intrigue of the downloadable content. But when examined, the app turns out to be little more than a detective’s blackboard of material, essentially just scenes from the series recut into edits focusing on various characters, narrative threads, or key story beats. It’s ostensibly done in the name of letting people create their own variants on the story, sifting and arranging beats from the plot in order to make their own assessment of what really happened and how, but in practice it’s yet another “A for effort” attempt to rejigger something already perfect in its own medium for a different platform. There are a few moments that seem to be bonus content—scenes that aren’t included in the series—but crammed into an extraneous app, they register as white noise, something that works far better when assembled by a world-class storyteller into a singular work of art. Is there anyone who truly thinks they’re better than Steven Soderbergh at putting a complicated mystery into engaging and accessible form?
When it comes to elevating the material, no one outshines the director here. So many of the choices could have been a disaster: In the third installment, there’s a brief montage of flashbacks lasting mere seconds, but conveying a wealth of information to which the audience previously had no access. Instead of it feeling cheap or lazy, it’s thrilling, a challenge to the entire narrative and a way of forcing us to reconsider the assumptions on which we’re basing our sympathies. And late in the series, the very first scene is played over again (not the only time such a rewind happens), but with a patient attention to Hedlund’s face, as he slowly processes what is happening. It totally alters the tenor of the sequence, revising expectations and pushing us toward a new understanding of events, even as we know something isn’t right.
Rarely do such in-your-face demonstrations of card-up-the-sleeve trickery feel earned, but here, it’s all part of the magic. The entire final episode is a replay of events from the previous installment, seen from the point of view of a different character, but it’s even more rewarding than a normal “everything comes together” solution despite—or perhaps because of—the script’s refusal of simple resolutions. To a large degree, that’s the point: Even the most hard-fought battle can be rendered moot in a matter of seconds, thanks to forces beyond our control. Mosaic is a practically flawless TV series; it resists the gonzo machismo of a True Detective or the star-vehicle force of a Luther through its stubborn resistance to any norms of identification. It has a story to tell, it doesn’t have a singular hero through which to tell it, and there’s no neat ending to wrap it all up. We should all be so lucky to get more shows like this.