One of the most important filmmakers currently working today, Steven Soderbergh, is planning on stepping away from the big screen in Hollywood to pursue new artistic adventures. Side Effects has been named his last film to hit theaters and while that may change down the line I must say that he’s picked a perfect film to close on. This pharmaceutical thriller attacks the viewer like a drug to the brain, with its ripe message about America’s obsession with prescription medications right on the front line, while also easing back and uncovering a dirty secret that has its fair share of twists and turns. Soderbergh directs Side Effects much like his pandemic movie Contagion, but with a much sharper eye and a stronger and more focused sense of storytelling. I know it’s early in the year, but Side Effects is as of this moment the best film I’ve seen this year.
Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) is slipping into an uncontrollable depression. Her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) is fresh out of prison after an insider trade gone wrong and now, when her life seems to be at the perfect moment to start up again, she suddenly comes down with a severe case of the blues. Like most she attempts to resolve the temporary problem with a permanent solution, but that doesn’t end as planned and the next thing she knows she’s in a hospital looking at the face of Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law).
The two form a patient-doctor relationship, with Banks doing his best to offer her the pills that she needs to get better. He goes as far as contacting her old shrink Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones) to get the full rundown on Emily’s situation and how he can help remedy her current emotional problems.
And this is where things get gloomy and the film takes a turn for the unexpected. To go any further into the plot of Side Effects would be to rob the viewer of an experience that I’d call surprisingly tense and almost always full of twists, even if a couple of them can be seen from a distance.
Director Steven Soderbergh follows up closely on his recent success with Contagion, Haywire and Magic Mike by introducing us to another batch of unique individuals, only this time appearances tend to trick you. Soderbergh teams up with frequent collaborator (and writer of this film) Scott Z. Burns to deliver a finely-structured breakdown of the cause and effects of prescription drugs, shot through the lens of a seamlessly typical and happy American couple.
But instead of going down the familiar path of basic scandals or even corruption, Soderbergh and Burns mix up the source of the problem and explore an angle that most won’t see coming. The trailers for Side Effects have been purposely laid out as vague and sort of misleading, because there’s just no way to sell you on this film without ruining some of its better parts.
What I can tell you is that Soderbergh’s direction, as always, is solid. In fact it’s very solid. It shares that same hazy yellow hue that he’s been dancing with since Contagion and with Side Effects it feels the most natural. Soderbergh does a great job capturing the body’s change when put on multiple drugs with dozens of dangerous side effects. One moment things are bright and clear and the next things are fuzzy and lifeless, with characters reacting perfectly to Soderbergh’s constant shift in tone.
Rooney Mara gets the top bill as the film’s conflicted central character, but the real work comes from Jude Law. I’m not trying to discredit Mara, because her Emily is convincing, but Mara always keeps enough distance to make you not want to immediately side with Emily when things start going down. It’s an interesting direction to take the character, because initially Emily is the only one that you’re really supposed to connect with. As soon as the plot advances, but before the thick of it is revealed, you’ll slowly start to pull back from Emily and try and latch onto another character.
Soderbergh’s intentionally doing this, keeping you in your own state of confusion, to help amplify the feeling of depressants like the ones used in the film.
Shifting back to Jude Law is a must, because he’s working on a much larger level than any of his colleagues. In Contagion Law was just another familiar face tossed into an over-stacked deck of cards and in Side Effects he’s very much in control of each and every scene. Law has the ability to make you question him for one portion of the film and then firmly stand beside him for an even bigger chunk of the film. The way he reveals Dr. Banks’ own uncertainties among the muck of the film’s middle act shift is marvelous and unflinching.
Only an actor this talented can make it work and really sell you on both sides of the prescription notepad. If Jude Law would have had this much of an impact on Contagion then maybe that film would have stuck with me, but to this day it still remains the dimmest light of Soderbergh’s recent filmography.
Channing Tatum might be on the posters and in the trailers, because he’s a crucial part of the plot, but his role is nothing more than an extended appearance that helps the film find its feet. He’s mostly in the film’s slowest moments and that’s not his fault, but just a result of casting. He’s not given much to work with and because of that he simply adds another notch on his acting belt.
Side Effects meanders on sheer brilliance. It comes so close to becoming another Soderbergh masterpiece, but right when it reaches that point of perfection it starts to spiral down the drain. The problem isn’t in the twist itself or how the film closes it all off. It’s in the time that it takes to get from said twist to actual closing credits. Soderbergh’s tightly filmed thriller quickly becomes a slightly bloated episode of any courtroom television show. Just when you think it’s over he tosses in another little fork that takes you in a slightly different direction, but a direction that you would have reached (much sooner mind you) if the film would have stayed on course.
I’m still not sure if this is an editing problem or just a personal nag from someone that’s seen their fair share of detective shows on the USA Network. Side Effects still works as a Soderbergh film and more importantly as his “last” film. I put quotes around that because I’m still having a hard time believing that he’s done for good. Maybe a couple years for rest, but there’s no way Soderbergh is done telling stories on the big screen.
If he is done then I’d like to thank him for the dozens of films that he’s made, all varying so much from each other, while still holding that Soderbergh stamp of creativity. He’s always been great at picking projects that are completely different from each other and yet still bringing them together with his unique filming style.
Thank you Steven Soderbergh.
Side Effects – 9/10