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Full Circle

Two years ago, writer Ed Solomon and director Steven Soderbergh collaborated on one of the best noirs in years with “No Sudden Move.” The pair are back with another twisty tale of buried secrets and double-crosses with Max’s “Full Circle,” a six-part limited series with a phenomenal cast and expectedly ace direction. There are a few too many coincidental twists in this tale for it to be as taut as the best of the genre, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that a feature runtime would have forced a paring of the script that would have fixed this problem. But there’s so much to like here that its sins can be forgiven. 

“Full Circle” opens as what seems like a relatively straightforward kidnapping drama, almost as if it will be Soderbergh’s take on something like Ron Howard’s “Ransom.” The son of a wealthy family is kidnapped. Except, well, not really. Things go very wrong from the beginning of this complex scheme, orchestrated by Guyanese power player Mahabir (CCH Pounder), who speaks of closing a circle to remove a curse. You see, the powerful New York family has ties to an incident in Guyana many years ago, and so the kidnapping is more than just a typical money grab—it’s an act of vengeance. Much of the most interesting material in Solomon’s script works from the idea that people often act out of more than one self-interest.

At first, Derek (Timothy Olyphant) and Sam (Claire Danes) presume that the abduction of their son Jared (Ethan Stoddard) is purely for financial gain. After all, Jared's grandfather is a celebrity named Chef Jeff (Dennis Quaid). The abductors, which include Mahabir’s nephew Aked (Jharrel Jerome), his ex-girlfriend Natalia (Adia), and teens named Xavier (Sheyi Cole) and Louis (Gerald Jones), demand an odd sum: $314,159, which Jeff notes is the start of the numerical value of pi. It’s an easy amount of money for this incredibly well-off family to get, and Derek is soon racing around town with a bag of cash. However, something’s gone wrong from the very beginning that I won’t spoil. I’ll only say that decisions must be made quickly, and not everyone here seems capable of making the right ones.

Dragged into this drama is an officer of the United States Postal Inspection Service named Harmony (Zazie Beetz), who is investigating a series of insurance scams perpetrated by Mahabir and her crew. When she’s not butting heads with a slimy superior Manny, played perfectly by Jim Gaffigan, or breaking up with her girlfriend, the spectacularly named Melody Harmony is playing Columbo, drawing the lines that connect Mahabir, Aked, Sam & Derek, and even her boss. It’s a tale of remarkable connections between characters that sometimes stretches credulity, but the robustness of Soderbergh’s filmmaking holds it together. Whether it’s sweaty close-ups or liberal use of a very Bernard Herrmann-esque score by Zack Ryan, "Full Circle" is a great example of how much craftsmanship one of the best American filmmakers brings to everything he does.

Soderbergh is also a consistently underrated director of performance, and there are several stand-outs here. There could almost be a feminist read of this tale given how not only are Manny, Jeff, and Derek’s skeletons about to come tumbling out of their closets, but they seem radically incapable of holding their own lives together as the tensions rise. Olyphant, Gaffigan, and Quaid are all excellent at capturing this privileged naivete without turning their characters into caricatures. Danes can do “harried professional” in her sleep, partially because she’s so good at it. As she realizes the connections that give “Full Circle” its shape, Danes deftly sells some late-series moral conundrums necessary for the show’s endgame. Beetz nails the playful tone of a woman who knows she’s smarter than the professional situation she has found herself in—working for a jerk—and it’s her ability to sell Harmony's quick decisions that gives the piece much momentum. Finally, Jerome is perhaps the best of the series, giving Aked a desperation that feels truly dangerous.

The final episode is a bit of a letdown in that the series has built so much tension to that point, only for it to stall when it still has to close a few loops. Having said that, the final image is one of Soderbergh’s best closing shots, a reminder that this has all been about long-term consequences and that things have a habit of finding their way back to where they began.

Whole series was screened for review. "Full Circle" premieres on Max tomorrow, July 13th.

Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico is the Managing Editor of RogerEbert.com, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also a writer for Vulture, The Playlist, The New York Times, and GQ, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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Full Circle

360 minutes

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