Over the last two decades, director Steven Soderbergh has become one of cinema’s most impressive and consistently entertaining auteurs. Unlike the Coen Brothers and Paul Thomas Anderson, Soderbergh has kept a low profile over the years and his films rarely make it to the Oscar podium, and yet Soderbergh, with his deft ability to flood his films with gritty realism, moody ambiance, and strong ensemble performances, remains an acclaimed talent nonetheless, even picking up the Best Director Oscar once for the mesmerizing classic, Traffic. So it’s no surprise that Side Effects is all these things – a film with pharmaceutical realism that mocks the upper class’ reliance on drugs, a movie with a moody ambience that unnerves the mind and gets your head spinning, and a film with a strong ensemble cast, including Jude Law, Channing Tatum, Catharine Zeta-Jones, Rooney Mara, and Vanessa Shaw, among others. Touted as Soderbergh’s final film before heading into retirement, Side Effects is a great reminder of why we love this director so much: he knows how to effectively tell and execute a genre movie.
From crime movies (Out of Sight, Traffic) to capers (Ocean’s 11), actioners (Haywire), docu-dramas (The Girlfriend Experience), biopics (Erin Brockovich, Che), works of science fiction (Solaris), and dark dramedy (Magic Mike), Soderbergh is a master of genre films, infusing his original style (he directs, edits, and even shoots his own movies under different names) with the structures and norms of a particular genre. With Side Effects, Soderbergh officially proves he can make a slick and twisty psychological thriller a la Hitchcock and old school Brian de Palma – did anyone doubt he could? I know I didn’t. From the film’s arresting opening – a pan across multiple windows that’s straight from Hitchcock’s immortal Psycho – to its very end, Soderbergh is always in control of his movie, no matter how over-the-top and sleazy the plot may become in its third act.
It helps that screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (who last worked with Soderbergh on the nightmarish disaster film, Contagion) has a rather fascinating story to tell. Though trailers are touting Side Effects as a pharmaceutical thriller, the movie is more a murder mystery with all the medical talk being woven throughout and quietly making a powerful statement on drugs, medicine, and depression. As the film begins, we meet Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara), a depressed wife reuniting with her husband (Channing Tatum) after he was imprisoned for 4 years due to insider trading. To combat her ever sense of a directionless life, Emily turns to Dr. Jonathon Banks (Jude Law), who prescribes a handful of different medicines, the last and most effective being the fictional Ablixa, a new anti depressant that everyone seems to back, including Emily’s former doctor, the icy Victoria Siebert (Catharine Zeta-Jones). Unfortunately, the side effects of Ablixa lead to murder, sending Dr. Banks on a path that could destroy his career and his family and Emily on a path straight to prison. What went wrong? Who is to blame? Of course, nothing is at it seems and as the film progresses, twists come left and right, turning Side Effects into a meandering mind bending.
After truly blowing us away with her star-is-born performance as Lisbeth Salander in David Fincher’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Rooney Mara dials back and introverts intensity in a performance that demands you study her every move (she keeps you on your toes). With her quiet voice, entrapping bangs, heightened cheekbones, and big, big eyes, Mara turns Emily into an enigma, a women who we can’t read or figure out or even understand. That may turn many away from Side Effects – it definitely isn’t the most audience friendly (these are cold characters making cold, unethical decisions) – but Mara is some kind of miracle, exuding an intrigue that is seductive and dangerous. Is she a victim? Is she an anti-hero? Mara doesn’t give us a hint of an answer and it makes the film all the more fascinating. Law is equally impressive here. After showing considerable strength in Soderbergh’s Contagion, Law does strong work as Dr. Banks, whose mental state begins to cripple as the mystery of the murder thickens. There’s a charm in Law’s eyes while he interviews his patients, and there’s a tragic sense of uncontrolled vulnerability as his world spirals out of control. Law and Mara are the film’s leads (with Mara everywhere in the first half and Law in much of the second) and they are the perfect choices to play these characters. Tatum and Jones also turn in solid work, though their performances are more straightforward compared to the ambiguous pleasures of Law and Mara.
And yet, Soderbergh, as always, is king. By the time the film’s big reveal comes into play, many might be left rolling their eyes or saying, “Really?”, but this is genre fare, and the twist, despite being sleazy and somewhat hokey, makes sense in this type of movie and Soderbergh handles it with the craft and professionalism that has helped him craft such a great filmography. While there’s plenty of homages to chew on (the aforementioned Hitchcock opener, the skewed angles of Brian de Palma), this is through and through a Soderbergh film, and from the cold blues of offices to the hazy yellows in a mental hospital and the bright, dream-like colors of a crucial flashback, Soderbergh creates tension, emotion, and speculation just from his cinematography alone. His use of focus also dazzles, as the film, like the drug Ablixa, becomes a fever haze of depression and uncontrollable dizziness. Just like the pharmaceutical drugs play with their patients’ minds, so too does Soderbergh play with ours, and the way he similarly frames and focuses Law and Mara keep the ambiguities of their characters front and center at all times. Who is right? Who is wrong? It’s a question you’ll be asking yourself long after you leave the theater. Acclaim must also be given to composer Thomas Newman, who breaks out of his traditional melodies with an eerie, mechanical score similar to Trent Reznor’s work on Dragon Tattoo.
At the end of the day, Side Effects is great genre movie making – it’s a reminder of how incredible Rooney Mara is (somebody please get this girl in more movies stat!) and how damn exceptional Soderbergh has become throughout his prolific career. Side Effects may not be one of his most remembered films years from now, but its another piece in a big, big puzzle that depicts Soderbergh as a master of American filmmaking, an independent mind turned genre auteur, and for that I couldn’t be more thankful and proud to have grown up watching such a bold and visionary artist. Soderbergh, you will be greatly missed my friend, here’s to a beautiful retirement.
Review by Zack Sharf