Let Them All Talk
Steven Soderbergh’s Latest Continues His Experimental Trend
Thankfully Steven Soderbergh is terrible at keeping his promises. The American director has proposed more than once in the last decade that he was retiring from making films. These breaks, however, have only lasted a year at most; in fact, Soderbergh has been more prolific in “retirement” than out of it, making 10 films in the last 10 years. His most recent is for HBO Max, after a recent stint in Netflix, and takes place nearly entirely on a cruise.
Let Them All Talk (2020) centers around Alice Hughes (Meryl Streep), a celebrated author who is being offered a prestigious fiction award in England. However, Alice lives in New York and is averse to flying; thus her new literary agent Karen (Gemma Chan) books a trip for her and a number of chosen companions on the Queen Mary 2 cruise ship that sails from New York to Southampton. Alice decides to invite her nephew Tyler (Lucas Hedges) and two old college friends she hasn’t seen in thirty years: Susan (Diane Wiest) and Roberta (Candice Bergen).
Soderbergh has been a truly admirable director in how he has taken bold steps in experimenting with storytelling and the filmic medium. He played around with visual colors in Traffic (2000), was able to push the TV movie into prestige territory with Behind the Candelabra (2013), filmed an entire film using only an iPhone in Unsane (2018), and made the first forays in “choose-your-own-adventure” TV with Mosaic (2017-2018). He is a director that is always looking to do something new, and for that he should certainly be admired. These risky bets don’t always pay off, but they are certainly fascinating to watch. With Let Them All Talk, Soderbergh took his cast and a skeleton crew on the real cruise ship and filmed the story during the actual trajectory, with unseeming guests sharing the background.
Soderbergh is pushing to do a more naturalistic form of storytelling, with his actors receiving broad outlines for many scenes and encouraged to improvise. In many ways this style reminded me of Richard Linklater’s and the likes of Dazed and Confused (1993) or Everybody Wants Some!! (2016), in how it captures seeming pointless yet completely engrossing moments and conversations. This kind of approach certainly pays off when one has humble performers that aren’t afraid of playing scenes out with a loose rhythm. The cast in Let Them All Talk is incredibly strong down the line, and it doesn’t make much sense to single anyone out. They were all able to bring about a great emotional dimension to each of their characters without the narrative really providing much backstory. Despite some conversations or scenes not leading anywhere, you grasp on to every word that is being said, largely thanks to the incredible delivery and charisma of those delivering dialogue.
Soderbergh’s mission in Let Them All Talk seems to be to place viewers in a position of being a fly-on-the-wall for each scene. He achieves this was some expert technical work both in editing and the framing of the film (which he did both himself under pseudonyms), creating a real sense of space and atmosphere, which is the film’s strongest suit by far. This effort to bring audiences into the setting is also why the script is written with not much insight or exposition for viewers, we are dropped in the middle of these characters’ lives without any indications or hints as to what the beats and expectations could be. This proves to be refreshing in that viewers aren’t sure what will happen since the traditional storytelling structure is thrown out the window. It makes for a more inclusive experience in that viewers are simply enjoying the cruise trip and the company of these characters as if we were another passenger along on the cruise.
While the lack of structure is certainly refreshing and can produces certain real surprises, it also leaves behind a feeling of emptiness. By not having a clear structure or potent plot, Let Them All Talk is missing some core element to anchor its story and characters. While the performers are able to make their characters likeable and intriguing, they aren’t able to conceive clear or fulfilling arcs for them. In fact, the entire film and its story seem to be held together, scene to scene, by the weakest common thread; trying to find cohesion between the winding narrative. Thus, even if each scene is involving, their constellation together in the film makes for a rather drab and forgettable quilt.
Let Them All Talk is a technically immersive experiment using some quality tools in the shape of stellar performers. The loose narrative strictness gives way for some refreshing and unexpected moments and delicious individual scenes. However, in lacking a clear sense of structure, Soderbergh ends up missing clarity and punch in his conclusion and finale, leaving the entire experience to feel like a hollow set of vignettes.