Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Full Circle

One country that has not figured in many movies or TV series I've seen is Guyana. There have been the various dramatizations of the Jonestown massacre, and there was also Werner Herzog's documentary The White Diamond, about an aeronautical engineer who builds a teardrop-shaped airship to fly over the country's forest canopies. Besides these, I haven't seen anything set in or having to do with Guyana, at least not that I can recall off the top of my head. But Guyana plays a major part in the recent Steven Soderbergh six-part series on Max, Full Circle, even though nearly all the action in the show actually happens in New York City.

For Full Circle, Soderbergh reteams with writer Ed Solomon, with whom he collaborated on the murder mystery series Mosaic and the excellent No Sudden Move. This time, the focal point is a teenage boy's kidnapping, which the perpetrators, for a reason that is believable, completely botch. On the one hand we have the Guyanese kidnappers, led by a quietly sort of scary matriarch, played by CCH Pounder; on the other hand, we've got a family of affluent white New Yorkers. Sounds like the plot could be treading in a touchy area, but as things unfold and we see the connections between everybody and the reasons behind what is basically a criminal act of revenge for actions the family did in the past in Guyana, we understand that the matriarch and those working for her have a good reason to want vengeance. Not that the teenage boy deserves to be abducted or knows anything about what his parents and grandparents may have once done down in Guyana. His parents are played by Claire Danes and Timothy Olyphant and Danes' father by Dennis Quaid, and all carry secrets from each other that naturally, as the series progresses, come out into the open to everyone's discomfort. And through it all, you have an indefatigable investigator on the case, Zazie Betts, who here plays her character for maximum irascibility and arrogance, a bold choice, because even though you want her to get to the bottom of things, she rubs you the wrong way. Still, you can't entirely blame her for being as she is. She's clearly more intelligent and honest than her superior, a consummately bureaucratic Jim Gaffigan, who puts in a performance that shows, yet again, that when comedians get meaty dramatic parts, with no substantial comedy involved, they can be absolutely convincing. I really can't think of any Soderbergh production where the acting is weak, and Full Circle, from top to bottom, from the name actors to the less well-known ones who play the large assortment of Guyanese characters, is no exception.

Full Circle isn't perfect. The plot is compelling but there's a lot going on, and at times the maze-like story becomes a tad confusing. It actually could have been an episode longer, to hash out in more detail what happens to everyone. But the tension quotient through the series is high, the suspense strong. And as you would expect, you have Soderbergh's vigorous camera tracking and circling and peeking everywhere, sometimes in darkness, sometimes inside, sometimes through washes of blinding and beautiful natural light. And it all takes place in a New York City of right now, from Greenwich Village and specifically Washington Square Park (a key and central location for the action) to working-class residential Queens and the heart of a vibrant Guyanese community. Different cultures, contrasting social spheres, people striving for more in life and others hoping to keep what they have without having to face how they may have acquired it. Is it as good as its inspiration, Akira Kurasawa's High and Low? Of course it isn't, but there's not a moment in its six hours or so running time that drags or isn't in some way interesting. When at times the script gets a little cloudy, Soderbergh makes sure that he keeps the momentum going, holding you in the story's narrative grip.

As for the ending, the very ending? It's not exactly what I might have expected, the final note, something that at very first seems a touch anti-climatic, but it's been several days since I wrapped the series up and I find that the ending works. It resonates. As so often with Soderbergh, it comes down to follow the money. Just follow that money through thick and thin, and you may be able to track things back to the original crime that spawned the web of secrets and misunderstandings and revengeful deeds to follow.

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