There’s a tense moment that sums up Mosaic, Steven Soderbergh’s HBO thriller about a murder in a Utah ski-resort town. A character confronts another over a moment from their tangled past, to make sure they’ve got their story straight for the cops. She smiles warily. “Is this like a 12-step thing?” When he presses her not to talk, she says, “Well, I’m not gonna lie.” He shrugs. “Right. I totally get that. And that’s cool.” They’re feeling each other out, comparing notes, neither one quite trusting. Meanwhile, we try to figure out which one is lying – maybe both of them. We can’t tell if they believe their own stories or not. But that’s what makes Mosaic an alluring mystery: Nobody seems to “totally get” the concept of not lying. In fact, nobody seems to get it even halfway.
Ever the innovator, Soderbergh has designed Mosaic as a whole new approach to the TV crime drama. He debuted this mystery as an interactive smartphone app, with a seven-hour sprawl forged in the “choose your own adventure” spirit. The story changes depending on which order you watch the chapters; in the overlapping subplots and timelines, you select different characters’ perspectives. If you follow Sharon Stone’s bearded boy toy, you get one tale; if you pick her con-man lover, you get a different one. But you’re the detective who has to piece the story together.
That’s still how Mosaic works on the screen, even in the director’s “cut” that premieres on HBO on January 22nd. It’s a whodunit where the story never gets straight. And as fun as it was as an app, it’s far more compelling in Soderbergh’s version. Viewing it onscreen, you’re still the detective, and there’s no question about the crime at the heart of the story: a murder in a small town full of posh ski-resort dandies and scruffy artists. But you puzzle it out as you sort the lies, the alibis and the dirty facts.
Sharon Stone, the Bette Davis of the Blockbuster-era erotic thrillers, might be a surprising face to see hanging around the Prestige TV neighborhood, But that just adds to the eerie atmosphere, especially since she’s excellent as Olivia Lake, a brittle and jaded author of children’s books. When she spots a hot young bartender across the room, her response is “I hope the last book he read wasn’t mine.” The lady slithers over to the bar, asking the bartender Joel (Garrett Hedlund) to “pour me something tall and muscular. A less refined host might have said ‘stiff.'” (Give Stone a few wisecracks and she can always run with them; the actress hasn’t had this many bon mots since Basic Instinct 2.)
After that, things get tricky. Stone gets involved with Joel as well as a con man named Eric (Frederick Weller), while Paul Reubens (Pee Wee himself!) is fabulously slimy as one of her disreputable jet-set friends. Ed Solomon’s script is full of barbed banter, while Soderbergh throws in one format shift after another; we see subtitles to show what one character is texting while she chats face to face with another character. There really is an element of the Choose Your Own Adventure books – or, for adult readers, Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch.
Devin Natray is excellent as a long-suffering cop; you can tell when this guy looks in the mirror, he sees Ron Swanson, but the rest of the world just sees another loser. (And if you’re wracking your brain trying to figure out why this guy looks so familiar – he was Buzz in Home Alone, all those years ago.) In a more conventional crime drama, this would be the humble but trustworthy cop with a heart of gold that we’d follow down in the hole. At one point, when he’s talking to somebody who accidentally reveals a detail in the murder investigation, he says, “Official hat here” – that’s his down-home way of reminding her it’s on the record. But that’s what makes Mosaic fascinating. There is no official hat here.