You’ve got two different ways to watch Steven Soderbergh’s new cinematic experiment, Mosaic: You can turn on HBO and watch it as a six-episode series, with parts airing each night from Monday, January 22, to Friday, January 26. Alternately, you can pick up your phone or tablet, download the Mosaic from Steven Soderbergh app, and watch it whenever and however you want—choosing which narrative threads to track, following the characters you like the most, and digging into clues that occasionally pop up at the bottom of the screen.
Most people will kick back and watch the HBO version, I’m guessing, because it’s easier. But you’re missing out if you don’t at least poke around in the app—and not just missing out on big chunks of Mosaic’s plot, but also on what feels like a slick, inventive way to tell stories.
Boiled down to its bones, Mosaic could be standard fare for prestige TV: It’s a murder mystery about rich people in Summit, a fictionalized version of one of the upper-class ski towns nestled in the snowy, jagged mountains above Salt Lake City. The players, though, are both expected and not: There’s the beloved, successful children’s book author Olivia (Sharon Stone) and her BFF JC (Paul Reubens); there’s the earnest, overwhelmed cop Nate Henry (Devin Ratray), who chafes under the brashness of his former boss, Alan (Beau Bridges); there’s a slick conman, Eric (Frederick Weller), and his smarty-pants sister, Petra (Jennifer Ferrin); and there’s young, dreamboat drunk Joel (Garrett Hedlund), who tosses back shots while dreaming of a better life. All are more than they first appear, and following Mosaic’s brutal, bloody murder, they do what all good characters in all good mysteries do: slink and glower, question and dodge, and try, along with the audience, to separate legit clues from red herrings.
In both the HBO cut and the app, the mystery itself isn’t the strongest aspect of Mosaic. But like some of TV’s best mysteries—Broadchurch, True Detective, and sure, I’ll say it, American Vandal—Mosaic works because of how well it conveys its mood and sense of place. Despite all the suspicion, backstabbing, and blood (or because of all the suspicion, backstabbing, and blood), the chilly, ominous world of Mosaic is one you’ll want to spend time in. (I blew through all six episodes in an afternoon.) That’s helped immensely by Soderbergh’s cold, clever camerawork and the pitch-perfect score, from longtime Soderbergh collaborator David Holmes. Paired with the sparse beauty of the Rocky Mountains, the setting and feel of Mosaic pulls you in.
In the HBO cut, it’s easier to settle into that mood: While watching, you’re totally in the hands of Soderbergh and writer Ed Solomon—watching as their story plays out, rolling with the tone and the pacing they’ve created. In the app, things are different.
The Mosaic app—which is clear, intuitive, and, unlike HBO, free—functions as a branching-path narrative: You watch a chunk of Mosaic, and then, at its conclusion, choose which plot thread to track. Some of those branches lead you closer to Mosaic’s conclusion, while others duck, weave, or dead-end. Throughout, blips pop up onscreen—“discoveries”—and, with a tap or two, you can dig deeper into police evidence or characters’ backstories, or stumble onto narratives only hinted at in HBO’s shorter, more linear cut. There are PDFs, websites, voicemails, emails, and entire scenes here, all of which offer more detail, more clues, and a creepy sense of voyeurism. There’s the sense, however manufactured, that you’re peeking and prying into lives and crimes; you feel like an active participant in the mystery rather than just some schlub slouched on a couch.
If the app is more fun, though, it also undermines a few of the strongest things about Mosaic: First there are performances, which are remarkable across the board, though Stone, Ratray, and Reubens are particularly great. Turns out it’s easier to appreciate them—and Soderbergh’s camerawork, and Holmes’ score—on a bigger screen, and when part of your brain isn’t itching to make your next decision.
But the bigger thing the app distracts from might be the themes baked into Mosaic’s narrative—themes that cleverly echo the choices viewers face when using the app. Most murder mysteries are ultimately about the lies we tell other people, but Mosaic is just as interested in the lies we tell ourselves—and how stories change depending on who’s telling them. When I was curled up with my iPad, wondering where I should tap next and trying to guess what secrets might be down which paths, I was focused on Mosaic’s plot—its mechanics, its clues, its timeline, its details. Watching it play out on my TV, though? That’s the way that I could appreciate Mosaic’s characters, and mood, and what it had to say about frailty and fear, anger and remorse. Or, in simpler terms: its story.