At its core, Steven Soderbergh’s Mosaic, a six-part HBO miniseries and interactive web experience, tries to tell the story of a woman’s loneliness. The project, which was released as an iOS app last November and drops on HBO this week, stars Sharon Stone as children’s book author and illustrator Olivia Lake, a well-off resident of the fictional resort town of Summit, Utah, who goes missing after a New Years’ Eve party at her house. Her fiancé, Eric Neill (Frederick Weller), is sent to prison for her murder; witnesses saw them arguing the night of the party, and other circumstances — Neill’s history of grifting, his mixed-up testimony, some police eagerness to close the case — make his guilt seem more than merely plausible.
But when Lake’s body is found four years later, decayed and in pieces, new questions arise, old suspicions awaken, and the case gets reopened. That’s in part because of the efforts of Neill’s sister, Petra (Jennifer Ferrin), who believes in her brother’s innocence, and who pursues that belief at the cost of uncovering buried secrets of her own. But it’s mostly because of Lake herself, who was beloved as an artist but somewhat bristly as a person; Stone’s casting is almost too perfect. If she didn’t have outright enemies, Lake certainly didn’t have many friends, and therein is what makes this mystery so rich. Plenty of people could’ve talked themselves into killing her, and no single reason seems so much more compelling or urgent than any other. What’s clear is that this crime is apathetically cruel, less a matter of passion than of opportunity. Vulnerable, volatile, rich, and alone, Lake was a walking target, and she didn’t seem to know it.
Over the course of Mosaic’s six-plus hours (seven and a half, if you watch everything on the app or online), what’s revealed are the shifting loyalties, ulterior motives, and varieties of perspective that make the best mysteries so addictive and the worst ones so compulsively consumable regardless of quality. Rapid consumption is key, here. The show, which debuted Monday on HBO, airs again every night this week until it concludes Friday with two episodes. That’s not so different than any other mystery: Every great crime show is like one of those Wonderland cakes that read, “Eat me!” The goal is to shrink you down into a fragment of a person, glued to your couch until the ordeal is over. (Three years later, I still cannot believe I watched all 10 hours of Making a Murderer. Where was the “Reclaiming my time” meme when I needed it?)
Mosaic stands out for the amount of experimentation Soderbergh and his collaborators attempt to bring to bear on their story. The miniseries version plays out somewhat as you would expect of a Soderbergh mystery: elliptically, stylishly, with an emphasis on the amount of ambiguity and confusion you can generate in a thinking audience’s head with a well-placed montage here, a subtly skewed shot or two there, a beguiling flashback or voice-over or match cut elsewhere. If not for Stone’s brash sense of humor about herself, or Garrett Hedlund’s lost-boy charm (he plays one of her potential murderers), or the surprise delight of Paul Reubens as Lake’s saucy but low-key gay BFF — the stuff that makes this project feel human — Mosaic would feel wholly academic, like film school. It’s a good lesson in editing, writing, storytelling, and casual acting. As an outright mystery, told straight, it possibly has a little less to offer. I’m still peeling back too many Emerald City curtains in search of the wizard to know for sure.
But is that what matters? It’s hard, sometimes, to know how much credit to give an experiment like this. You can very much tell Mosaic wants to be a mystery about the nature of mystery: a study of the ways that longform storytelling can navigate a handful of narratives at once. If the show doesn’t convince you of that, the app — which gives you much of the same material, choose-your-own-adventure style, with the mystery unravelling pending the linear paths you opt to pursue as you make your way through the story — certainly will. I completed the app and watched the miniseries back-to-back, but it didn’t feel like I was repeating myself. This is the film-school vibe. The app’s 30-minute chunks of story are less rigorously edited than the scenes of the fuller miniseries; lots of spare details find their way into the story as you stick more closely to one character at a time and get a more quotidian, but not necessarily more revealing, sense of their relationship to the murder. Where the show makes a point of folding these paths into each other, the interactive experience is premised on teasing them apart, pursuing the mystery as various characters might pursue it (or involve themselves in it).
What you wind up watching, on the app, feels like an assembly: that initial director’s cut of a movie that’s overlong, misshapen, and badly paced. You’ve heard of directors saying they find the movie in the editing room. Mosaic in app form plays like a seven-and-a-half-hour movie that has yet to get that hands-on treatment, only more tedious, because it has the nerve to put that onus on you every 30 minutes. Textual and visual Easter eggs called “Discovery” are scattered throughout, meanwhile, meant to make you feel like you’re in on the process of figuring out the story: fake articles, a trove of spurned-romance emails, one-to-two-minute video asides providing backstory, and on and on. If I’d never played mystery games like Room or Her Story or read books like Goosebumps as a kid, I’d maybe be more intrigued. But if you see the Mosaic interactive experience in the context of any other mystery game, it’s a letdown: a game without much gameplay. It’s an undercooked cut of a movie in the guise of a novel digital opportunity.
The show, thankfully, is better, even as it’s still a little bit of a misfire. When Soderbergh puts it all together, his intentions as a stylist are more clear, and that classic feeling of thinking alongside his characters, keeping up with their choices and leaning into every pivot in their logic with each intriguingly placed and timed shot, is restored to the story. That disparity in pleasure is not exactly the lesson Mosaic intends to teach us, but it’s the one that sticks. The project is classic Soderbergh in that it’s an experiment that’s more admirable and groundbreaking than satisfying; it belongs on the shelf with Bubble and Ocean’s Thirteen. Like the latter, Mosaic fails for being weirdly bloated, a beached whale amid so many of the director’s pristine gems. I guess, to justify the $20 million price tag, it needed to be.
But bloat only exposes the director’s weakness. Plenty of his movies have little there there: Their beauty is in managing to astonish as feats of design that key us in to the unexpectedly rich ideas hiding beneath so much artifice. But the movies in question know as much and limit themselves accordingly. Their energy, their genius, is in their design. Mosaic, meanwhile, is a good-enough mystery that comes off as overstuffed by virtue of needing to be sold as more than it is. It makes me wonder what the director’s other slight but extremely elegant genre projects — Haywire, The Limey, Contagion, and so on — would have been like had they received similarly expansive treatment. I’m realizing, now, that they probably would’ve sucked. Soderbergh’s talent is devising epics in miniature, perfect little Cornell boxes that tilt inward on themselves with beauty and daring. Mosaic is the director’s attempt to break free of that — and it’s convincing evidence of why he shouldn’t.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.