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'Kimi' is a pandemic-era thriller that's eerily keyed into our current moment

Zoe Kravitz is an agoraphobic tech worker who stumbles on evidence of a crime in <em>Kimi</em>.
HBO Max and Warner Bros. Pictures
Zoe Kravitz is an agoraphobic tech worker who stumbles on evidence of a crime in Kimi.

There have been countless thrillers about women who shut themselves away in their homes, only to learn that the world inside may be even more terrifying than the one outside. Not all of them are winners; for every '60s classic like Repulsion or Wait Until Dark, there's also a howler like last year's overwrought Hitchcock homage The Woman in the Window. The gripping new movie Kimi is a nifty little addition to the shut-in canon. Like a lot of Steven Soderbergh's output of late, it's a sleek, low-budget genre exercise that's eerily keyed into our current moment.

The movie takes place sometime mid-pandemic and follows a 30-something woman named Angela, played by a terrific Zoë Kravitz. She works for a large Seattle tech firm that manufactures Kimi, one of those virtual home assistants, like Siri or Alexa, that will dim your lights, play your music and patiently try to answer your every question.

Angela has a Kimi of her own, which comes in handy since she never leaves her spacious loft apartment. She's agoraphobic, and while she got a handle on her anxiety years earlier, she lost it again during COVID lockdown.

Angela's job is to make Kimi smarter and more user-friendly. She listens to audio streams from customers whose requests Kimi didn't understand — and then writes code that will fix the issue. One day, she hears a disturbing clip of a woman screaming and realizes that Kimi must have somehow recorded a violent crime in progress. But when Angela tries to report her findings to the company, she's given the runaround and told to forget about what she heard. When she doesn't and starts learning more about the victim, who appears to have been brutally murdered, things get unexpectedly hairy.

It's a pleasure to watch Angela turn digital sleuth; Soderbergh is the kind of filmmaker so focused on minutiae that he can wring suspense from shots of typing fingers and blinking cursors. Eventually, Angela is told to come down to the office and meet with a company executive, forcing her to leave her apartment for the first time in months.

Soderbergh and his screenwriter, David Koepp, have structured Kimi as a sly 21st-century riff on classic paranoid thrillers from the 1970s. The fact that Angela is both surveilling and being surveilled harks back to The Conversation, while the sinister corporate conspiracy she uncovers echoes The Parallax View. Paranoia, of course, isn't an inappropriate response to a world where anyone with a smartphone knows that they're being closely tracked.

Kimi packs a lot of ideas into its brisk 89-minute running time about the pervasiveness of digital technologies, especially at a moment when COVID has made us more reliant on them than ever. But the movie also works like gangbusters as a pure thriller, from its outdoor chase sequences shot across downtown Seattle to its squirmingly tense Panic Room finale.

It wouldn't work nearly as well without Kravitz, who makes for an extremely likable protagonist in part because her character has no interest in seeming likable. Angela's anxiety earns your sympathy, and her persistence and resourcefulness earn your respect. But she can also be impatient and inconsiderate of the people in her life, whether it's her mom, whom she argues with on FaceTime, or the love interest who lives in the apartment across the street, in a tip of the hat to Hitchcock's Rear Window.

Angela's only human, in other words, and while most viewers may not share her agoraphobia, many of us can identify with her fears of going out after months of isolation. That's why it's both harrowing and moving when she finally musters the courage to leave home. Soderbergh, who shot and edited the film, uses tilted camera angles and bustling city noises to convey a sense of Angela's disorientation. But as she moves forward, Angela adjusts, and Kimi becomes a story about what it's like to reconnect with the world. That world might be a big, scary place, but it's not necessarily scarier than what's going on indoors, where someone might always be watching — or listening.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.