Everyone is listening to me. No one is listening to me. Both cornerstones of the thriller genre sturdily prop up KIMI, the latest micro-budgeted genre mess-around from Steven Soderbergh (thankfully back to delivering at least one movie per year since his emergence from retirement in 2017).
The former comes from the titular virtual assistant / smart speaker. KIMI is the new kid on the block, and its parent company, Amygdala, is about to launch a lucrative IPO. The marketing idiosyncrasy is that individuals listen if KIMI gets something wrong and adjust the algorithm in near real-time — like understanding teens want to hear songs by Taylor Swift, not a like-minded radio station, or that when someone giggles that KIMI is a peckerwood, they’re lobbing an insult.
The latter comes from Angela (Zoë Kravitz), one such technical genius who spends her days (and most nights) tweaking KIMI from her Seattle apartment. Angela’s agoraphobia emerged before the pandemic prompted everyone to avoid public spaces, but it has only exacerbated her condition and hobbled her progress forward.
Thriller-master David Koepp’s script wields COVID as thoughtful context rather than a topical cudgel. In concert with Larry Blake’s invasive and aggressive sound design and Soderbergh’s angularly amped visuals, the screenplay ratchets up the apprehension that can attend even the most minor movement outside our protective bubble. A persistent loosening and tightening of lockdown mentality cruelly teases a closeness, however minimal, to pre-pandemic living, and even a briefly forgotten safety measure can cripple our progress altogether.
To boot, the casual, harmless voyeurism that may have been temporarily acceptable during a public-health fermata might feel a little creepy as society crawls back toward more conventional isolation. We all wanted to know we were standing in our windows together, staying safe. But like Jeff Jefferies before her, Angela’s extended convalescence has left her perhaps a tad too accustomed to the access. It’s complicating her ability to connect beyond booty calls with Terry (Byron Bowers); nothing says “get out” right after sex like immediately stripping the sheets.
But it doesn’t cloud Angela’s ability to discern the sound of an assaulted woman — which she hears not through a rear window but a desktop application of KIMI streams. (“Trust me. I know bad,” Angela says. “I used to moderate for Facebook.”) Following protocol, Angela sends it up the corporate flagpole. But as middle managers shrug off the audio, Angela continues digging and discovers a web of crimes and cover-ups that will force her outside and into danger.
KIMI shares certain similarities with Soderbergh’s Unsane, from the inciting incident for Angela’s anxieties to the way it investigates evolving technology as an infinite loop of how we retreat further inside devices that empower and erode us. (Everybody is technologically fronting in some way here to keep up appearances, even the baddest of the bad guys.) However, KIMI is more of a clean-lined, drum-tight thriller plot, and thankfully not one that finds Koepp as another old man yelling at cloud storage.
The film evolves beyond “technology bad!” by zeroing in more deeply on Angela’s push-and-pull motivations. The real culprit are disingenuous, silence-breaking platitudes used to describe Angela’s survival, and that her pursuit of self-care can be turned on her as a weapon to counter claims that something is wrong. KIMI’s third act evolves into an effective spin on 2020’s The Assistant with an action edge: Can Angela exact a justice she never experienced for a woman she’ll never meet? Plus, the Seattle setting paired with Soderbergh’s triple-duty cinematography and editing come to evoke The Parallax View in a world of parallax scrolling. Cliff Martinez’s score tips the cap to Bernard Herrmann as the soundtrack finds room for Beasties and Billies. Meanwhile, Kravitz deploys a stealthy physicality that finds her shrinking, stooping, scampering, skulking, seducing and seizing the upper hand across a fleet-footed 89-minute running time.
Unlike Unsane, KIMI ends on a decisive conclusion for its heroine, complementing its ticking-clock economy and efficiency but also conjuring a social empathy akin to Koepp’s more comedic and criminally underseen 2008 film Ghost Town. Again, KIMI isn’t about COVID. But it’s cognizant of a world where each day brings more to hear and less worth listening to, the little habits a pandemic has wrought for good or for ill, and the heft of human helpfulness held up by the best of us.