Mosaic is another curious oddity from Steven Soderbergh, a filmmaker whose oeuvre is so diverse it is hard to tell whether he is a journeyman or auteur. Over the years, the director has tackled small indie dramas (Sex, Lies & Videotape), blockbuster franchises (the Ocean’s films) and lo-fi experiments (Full Frontal). His output post 2011’s Contagion seems to be a blend of all these areas. He tells stories – which in lesser hands would be straightforward mainstream movies – but in unconventional ways and with an added emphasis on dialogue and character. Mosaic sees Soderbergh perfect this style, previously seen in movies like Haywire, Side Effects and Logan Lucky.
The HBO six-part drama focuses upon celebrated children author Olivia Lake (Sharon Stone – Basic Instinct) who lives in a mountainous community for the wealthy in Summit, Utah. On her property is a hotbed of precious metal that her neighbour Michael (James Ransone – Ziggy in The Wire) wants to acquire. When Olivia refuses to sell for sentimental reasons, Michael hires con-man Eric (Frederick Weller) to seduce the author and convince her to sell her property.
Meanwhile, Joel (Garett Hedlund – On the Road) is a struggling artist supporting himself by working in Summit bartending and teaching skiing. Through flirting with Olivia, he manages to inveigle his way into her life, hoping she will enable him to get his foot through the door of the art-world. When the author goes missing and is presumed dead, Eric is presumed to be killer. However, is Joel responsible or could there be another culprit? Nate (Devin Ratray – Blue Ruin), a local detective, and Petra (Jessica Ferrin), Eric’s estranged sister, try to investigate.
Mosaic began life as an app, a type of interactive murder mystery in which the user is presented with a complex narrative and can choose who to focus on and how the information is divvied out. HBO agreed to fund the project if Soderbergh could assemble his own edit to air on the network. Although, an unconventional way to approach developing a TV show, it actually works in the series’ favour. Because of the structure of the app, writer Ed Solomon (Men in Black, Now You See Me) said he wanted each character to feel like the lead. Thus, all the major players in Mosaic feel three-dimensional and fully realised; Eric, a con-man finally arrested but this time for a crime he did not commit, Petra, his sister attempting to save her only remaining family, Joel, a former alcoholic who during a binge black-out cannot remember if he killed Olivia, and Nate, a cop with a hunch that Eric is the wrong man but becomes frustrated when all the signs point to his old friend Joel.
As the AV Club’s Alex McLevy wrote in his review of Mosaic, there is a touch of Robert Altman to the proceedings. He’s correct in the sense that the series is sprawling and focuses on a huge array of characters. Like Altman, Soderbergh is interested not just in the main story (e.g. the mystery and its investigation), but also in the characters and their every day lives. With each person in the show, we spend a little time that does not serve the overarching plot. While this could be frustrating, it serves the drama by adding realism and life to these characters. Would we like Devin Ratray’s Nate so much if we did not see him having a hilarious minor breakdown in his car after an argument with an old cop buddy? Probably not.
As Soderbergh directed each episode, the show looks fabulous. The first two episodes, in which Sharon Stone’s Olivia is front and centre are subtly evocative in their colour and framing; the blue-tint serving to highlight the author’s sadness (at growing old and suffering from feelings of loneliness) and the dutch camera angles representing her fiery, unhinged nature (a take no prisoners attitude which may have got her killed). Meanwhile, the back-half episodes are filled with stunning images; Eric in a completely white prison facility, capturing the mundanity of his days behind bars; a long-take following a major discovery in the case in which we see the work that goes into securing a crime scene.
Soderbergh’s snappy editing keeps everything moving at a steady clip while he navigates the complex mosaic-like structure of the series with the precision of a Rubik’s Cube pro. In the last episode, one comes to the realisation that the viewer was presented with everything to solve the mystery of the series in the first episode. However, what was missing what context – something Soderbergh and Solomon parsed out skilfully over subsequent episodes.
Although, the filmmaking and storytelling of the series have dominated how its been discussed. Mosaic deserves praise for both its humour and emotional elements. While The Knick’s Jeremy Bobb’s deliriously twitchy performance as Joel’s friend who becomes entangled in one of his lies is a joy (a conversation about The Wire is a dead-pan delight), Sharon Stone’s Olivia is a truly tragic figure. Although capable of being cruel and off-putting, these attributes came from insecurity that she was not good enough (her children’s book was a one-hit wonder). When she did meet a man, who made her feel secure (after various like Joel who had used her for money), it turned out it was part of hoax. After the ingenuity of Mosaic’s behind-the-camera trickery fades away, it is Stone’s brief but full-blooded turn that sticks with the viewer.