When filmmaker Steven Soderbergh announced his retirement from feature film directing, he was still directing things—just on the small screen. He poured his time and energy into his short-lived, brilliant Cinemax series The Knick, chronicling the goings-on at a New York hospital at the turn of the 20th century. The first inkling we got that Soderbergh might be coming out of his self-imposed retirement was a project at HBO called Mosaic, which some originally thought was a TV movie. In fact, it was a wholly original piece of storytelling—a “branched narrative” app in which viewers can choose how they view the story by following different paths. The app launched in November, but Soderbergh also created a “linear cut” of Mosaic to air on HBO as a limited series.
It’s that linear cut that I’m reviewing here, but I’ll say upfront that the app is both a really exciting and fun experience, and something wholly different from the linear version. They both tell the same story, just in very different ways.
Written entirely by Ed Solomon (Men in Black, Now You See Me), Mosaic is a murder mystery set in a fictional resort town. Sharon Stone, in top form for what should hopefully begin a welcome career resurgence, plays a famous children’s book author and illustrator named Olivia Lake, who has been living off the success of a single book for years, and who now finds herself wealthy, lonely, and a little bored. She meets a bartender-slash-up-and-coming-artist named Joel (Garrett Hedlund) at one of her parties, and quickly extends an invite for him to live on her property, work the land, and maybe receive a little…umm…guidance along the way.
That’s where the story begins in the linear cut, as the first two episodes or so provide a pretty lengthy prologue that introduces the characters and sets the stage. The murder then happens offscreen, and we cut to four years later, where the case is reopened as a severed hand surfaces on the property. This storytelling device is a stroke of brilliance by Solomon, as it first lays the foundation for all of the suspects and characters, then shows them all as changed/different people years later, all of whom have been affected by this death in various ways.
The murder mystery aspect of this story plays out in refreshingly surprising fashion, as the viewer is not the only one questioning what really happened—the suspects are as well. Stone is phenomenal in her role as Lake, layering the character with vulnerability, anger, and sadness. Though she doesn’t carry as much screentime as some of the other characters, her presence looms large throughout the whole thing.
Hedlund, meanwhile, once again proves he’s one of the most underrated performers working today. Joel is a complicated fellow, and Hedlund sells the character’s seeming contradictions wonderfully while also finding a really interesting evolution between the past-set scenes and the ones that take place four years later. In many ways Joel is the character who has both changed the most over time, and the least, and Hedlund is astoundingly good as Joel begins to question the reality of what actually happened.
And then there’s Devin Ratray, who you probably best know as Buzz from Home Alone, but who more than holds his own opposite these esteemed performers as a local detective who feels something’s off with this particular investigation. Ratray portrays one of the most important characters of Mosaic, and succeeds in crafting a lovable, sensitive, and hopeful investigator who is trying to stand up to the greater forces of corruption and deceit that surround this entire case. (Truly, Ratray is an absolute joy to watch).
Indeed, while Mosaic is a murder mystery, joy abounds. Solomon’s script is packed with organic humor and little moments that further the dimensionality of the experience—it’s all in the details, and Mosaic has details in spades. Soderbergh characteristically serves as director, camera operator, cinematographer, and editor on the entirety of Mosaic, and his intimate camerawork drives home the character-driven nature of this whole ordeal. The Soderbergh faithful will not be disappointed.