Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Written by Scott V. Burns
What Steven Soderbergh excels in as a filmmaker is in defying expectations. We can spot a Soderbergh film easily enough through his visual markers, whether he’s making a heist film or a lowdown action film or a story set in the world of male strippers, but he’s content to not be boxed in. Thus, some people may walk into Side Effects, his latest (and supposedly final) theatrical release, expecting a new Contagion, as this reunites Soderbergh with that film’s screenwriter. Expectations in Soderbergh’s world are meant to be turned upside down, however. Anchored by solid and constantly shifting performances from Jude Law and Rooney Mara, Side Effects proves another thrilling and frequently unpredictable entry in Soderbergh’s retirement tour.
Praising Side Effects is simple enough, but discussing it in depth will be difficult, as the less you know of the story, the better. Honestly, a cast including Law, Mara, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Channing Tatum plus the combination of Soderbergh and Burns ought to be enough to get you in theaters. What little plot should be revealed is as follows: Mara plays Emily Taylor, the shy, introverted wife of Martin Taylor (Tatum), who’s getting out of jail after a 4-year sentence for insider trading. Once Martin’s back in the free world, however, Emily finds it challenging to cope with the shift in her life and attempts to get better through therapy and medication, both courtesy of her new psychiatrist, Dr. Jonathan Banks (Law). It’s safe to say that complications ensue, but again, Side Effects is a film best appreciated cold.
The camerawork, by Soderbergh under the pseudonym Peter Andrews, sets the tone in predictably excellent and intense fashion. A chilly moodiness pervades the characters and environments in Side Effects, and not just Emily, though Burns’ script and Mara’s performance work in tandem to make her depressive state keenly felt. Mara had a far showier role in the English-language remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but her implacable features are put to better use as Emily, whose eyes belie a placid emptiness in her soul. Law, once an actor who seemed to show up in every other movie only a few years ago, gets a surprisingly meaty role, as a man who finds himself pushed as much at the end of his rope as Emily is. The actor’s innate charm and charisma are portrayed on the knife’s edge of propriety in Side Effects; we may trust his character at the outset, but the more we learn about him may make us doubt what we’ve been shown. Law, as well as Mara, is able to play the character’s subtle intricacies, leaving us constantly guessing.
Burns’ script could be perceived as being so twisty that it simply turns into a convoluted mess, but it has a calm, calculated manner, so each rug being pulled out from under us works on a gut-punch level. And in some respects, what may make Side Effects, like Contagion or Haywire, stand the test of time is less the ideas on display than the execution. Soderbergh, who also edited the film under another pseudonym, Mary Ann Bernard, forces himself to offer a new take on this medical thriller material. The marketing for the film has, fittingly, been a feint: while a good chunk of Side Effects comments on the way Western civilization has excessively embraced a pill-popping culture, either as desperate users or therapeutic pushers, it’s merely a framework for a compelling sleight-of-hand. Soderbergh’s strength as a director is on display in Side Effects: his playful inability to conform. Each shot so carefully framed, each transition perfectly captured (an early one that ends with the sound of a cracked ice pack is a striking bit of sound mixing and editing), and each cut from shot to shot crisp and appropriate: these are the hallmarks of Steven Soderbergh’s filmography, unflagging with Side Effects.
Soderbergh has said, over the last year, that after Side Effects and his HBO-aired biography of Liberace starring Michael Douglas and Matt Damon, he’ll either take a lengthy sabbatical from filmmaking or retire entirely. For a filmmaker who, in the last 5 years, has presented us with the epic story of Che Guevara, a comic biography of a corporate liar, a propulsive and low-key spy drama, a suspenseful disaster thriller, and this twisty story about how people with nothing to lose make daring and unexpected choices, Steven Soderbergh may well be going out with a bang. But one hopes that Soderbergh will think better of abandoning feature films altogether. As the compelling and cheerfully surprising Side Effects proves, Soderbergh’s vitality is unwavering and growing with time. He’s one of our best filmmakers, and with movies like these, the very thought of losing him is heartbreaking.
— Josh Spiegel