Steven Soderbergh’s star-studded Full Circle is a supremely tense kidnapping drama

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Steven Soderbergh returns to the genre he’s a master of in HBO thriller miniseries  Full Circlestreaming on Neon. It’s an original and compelling thriller with as much substance as it has style, writes Katie Parker.

As prolific as he is dynamic, Steven Soderbergh has proved himself across his many projects to be something of a cinematic chameleon—working with a pace and breadth that, across a career spanning more than 30 years, has seen him try his hand at just about everything. But amidst this eclectic oeuvre, the thriller is a staple to which Soderbergh returns to—and masters—again and again.

From heist comedy Ocean’s Eleven, to crime ensemble Traffic, to COVID-era surveillance drama Kimi, and many, many more in between, he is the king of tightly wound suspense. Now, fresh off Magic Mike’s Last Dance, Soderbergh’s six-part miniseries Full Circle sees him return once again to what he does best, in the form of a star-studded, supremely tense kidnapping drama.

Directed by Soderbergh and written by his frequent collaborator Ed Solomon, Full Circle’s complex, intricately plotted narrative revolves around an array of diverse and seemingly unrelated parties.

There are Louis (Gerald Jones) and Xavier (Sheyi Cole), two young men fresh in New York from Guyana, having been recruited to work for an immigrant crime family; Natalia (Adia), Louis’ sister, already in too deep with her brother’s new bosses; and wealthy Manhattan couple Sam (Claire Danes) and Derek (Timothy Olyphant), who together share a sheltered teenage son, Jared (Ethan Stoddard), and the behind-the-scenes business affairs of Sam’s celebrity chef father, Jeff (Dennis Quaid).

Then there’s lonely teenage runaway, Nicky (Lucian Zanes), sleeping rough and initiating a tentative online friendship with Jared; Harmony and Manny, (Zazie Beetz and Jim Gaffigan) an investigator with the Postal Inspection Service and her boss respectively, both of whom seem ethically compromised to varying degrees.

Setting in motion a series of events that bring all these very different lives together is the shady, powerful Mrs. Mahabir (a fabulously menacing CCH Pounder), the leader of the Guyanese criminal enterprise that employs Louis and Xavier, whose plan to avenge the death of her brother-in-law goes instantly, badly awry—beginning with the botched kidnapping of Jared, as her underlings accidentally pick up Nicky instead.

If this all sounds like a lot, that’s because it is. Bestowing on each character a rich and complex backstory, Full Circle weaves together a head-spinning number of plot threads, and at first it seems vaguely incomprehensible that they could all cohesively come together.

Yet with each storyline so clearly and carefully arranged and each character so vividly and thoughtfully sketched, the gradual, slow-burn unraveling of Full Circle’s many secrets is a pleasure to behold. Surprisingly well structured and paced given how much it has to get through, each episode brings the whole picture into clearer focus. As a thriller, it is palpably tense—from the first episode, in which a key plot point hinges on that very familiar horror, a dying cell phone battery, Soderbergh imbues every moment with stomach-churning suspense and the sense that, for all involved, the worst is yet to come.

Fortunately—and typically for Soderbergh—the perfectly assembled cast is up to the challenge.

Pounder, as the formidable matriarch of an organised crime group, is chilling, imbuing her every scene with a quiet, assured, and slightly unhinged malevolence. Beetz and Gaffigan, as a boss and employee who truly hate each other, are too a fabulously disruptive presence, perfectly upending the typically reassuring dynamic of a law enforcement duo with their total distrust and animosity.

Danes and Olyphant (who is bearing an increasingly uncanny resemblance to Michael Shannon as he ages), meanwhile flawlessly embody the kind of semi-elite, well-connected upper-crusters that too often are uncritically treated as aspirational. Quaid, sporting a rat’s tail gross enough to rival that of The Idol’s Tedros Tedros, is also pitch-perfect as the preening and self-important Chef Jeff, a cheesy minor celebrity whose wholesome culinary empire belies a dark and amoral underbelly.

And as the young Guyanese immigrants left to do the dirty work in this ill-fated plot, Jones, Cole and Adia consistently threaten to outshine their more famous cast members, nailing incredibly demanding roles with naturalistic and nuanced performances that thankfully evade stereotypes and cliché.

Amidst a television landscape full of period pieces, comic book franchises, and escapist fluff, Full Circle is a rare contemporary drama that actually has something to say about our present moment—and in doing so only intensifies the impact of its thrills. Interrogating a way of life in which extreme privilege not only ignores, but depends on, the extreme suffering and desperation of a segment of society that is not as far removed as it may seem, the series asks uncomfortable questions about who wins and who loses in this scenario.

It’s confronting, and at times, challenging stuff—and while Solomon’s script is too nuanced to be scathing, it also doesn’t let anyone off the hook. Creating the kind of dramatic tension that is deepened by real-world meaning—and that will leave you thinking things over long after the finale—Full Circle expertly crafts an original and compelling thriller with as much substance as it has style.