I give Soderbergh three years. Three years for him to put down the paintbrush and get back to film making again. Anyone who has read an interview with Soderbergh recently can attest to the fact that he is undergoing some silver screen existential crisis. This, Side Effects, will be his last proper film before he folds up the director’s chair. Cinema has become too stale for him. Canvas is the way forward. We’ll see, Steven, we’ll see.
If Side Effects is really his last film, then the eclectic auteur has gone out with a bang rather than a whimper. The Hollywood veteran has worked at a furious rate since his 1989 breakthrough Sex, Lies and Videotape, melding an inimitable career of highbrow blockbusters and arthouse experiments. No one has blurred the line so successfully between art and commerce in Hollywood the past 20 years or so. Soderbergh is a one off, so for him to announce his surrender is disappointing. Side Effects is perhaps a perfect encapsulation of Soderbergh’s strengths as a film maker, a devastating mix of cinematic thrills and probing social satire.
Rooney Mara plays Emily Taylor, a moderately achieving urbanite whose husband Martin (Channing Tatum) has just been released from prison for insider trading. A fledgling married couple, Emily struggles to adapt to the return of her husband, and resorts to suicidal flirtations in a cry for help. A meeting with suave English doctor Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) alerts her to the availability of Ablixa, a new anti-depressant that will apparently cue her woes. Dr. Banks, however, has ulterior motives for supplying Ablixa; a lucrative contract with the pharmaceutical company behind the drug leaves him eager to press the drug on new clients. The drug begins to work its wonders and Emily and Dr Banks are ecstatic- that is until things start to go dreadfully, devastatingly wrong.
Side Effects is one of those few films where it works much better if you know little about it. Scott Z Burn’s sparky, live wire script is as twisty as a drive down a Scottish highlands road. If you think you have a handle on where Side Effects is going, think again. While the first third succeeds as a psychological thriller in the Polanski vein, the final two acts change tact and move into another genre entirely and then back again. It is testament to Soderbergh and Burn’s talent that the story never loses focus or sags as the plot veers from one direction to the next. It is gripping from start to finish.
The blank beauty of Mara is utilised perfectly by Soderbergh, perfectly conveying the sense of despair that depression brings, while also hinting at something bubbling under the surface. Law, a much maligned actor, proves how talented he can be with the right role. His Dr Banks is eminently likeable, personable yet flawed. You get the sense that this is someone with high moral aspirations, but always a few fingertips away from grasping this moral ground. The film takes Banks to murky places, but his character never feels emotionally adrift from the audience. Tatum and Catherine Zeta Jones, as the creepy Dr Siebert, both give strong performances in smaller roles. You wonder why Zeta Jones hasn’t played the queen bitch role more often, as she excels here.
Side Effects also features a disorientating array of visuals, led by Peter Andrews (Soderbergh’s DOP alias). Never complacent, Soderbergh moves from muted greys to flushed reds from scene to scene, mirroring the disorientating effects of the drugs. A mixture of high and low angle shots add to the confusion, keeping the audience on their toes all the time. Thomas Newman’s tingly ambient score is like a quietly sinister lullaby floating through the film, contributing to the sense of dread. Soderbergh’s films have often been interesting sensory exercises and this is no different.
While there are moments when the audience’s plausibility meter is stretched to breaking point, Soderbergh always pulls it back. Side Effects performs perfectly as an exercise in the paranoid thriller genre, but it is also a film keen to deliver a message and keep the audience thinking for a few days. It touches on the financial crisis and the effect that has had on society, the pharmaceutical industry and even the judiciary system. It is definitely not just a pretty face. While the cinematic thrills and spills are the ones that grab you by the wrists, the message of moral responsibility will inevitably linger in the mind.