Few directors, who have emerged post 1980, have been as prolific as Steven Soderbergh. He has effortlessly travelled from genre to genre while still pushing the boundaries of filmmaking along the way. When news of Soderbergh’s self imposed retirement surfaced many cinephiles moaned at the loss of a cinematic visionary. While it still remains to be seen if this retirement will be permanent or merely a much needed vacation, he has directed seven films in the last three years after all, there is no denying that Soderbergh has left his mark on the world of cinema. So it is fitting that his final feature film, Side Effects, would be a perfect culmination of the best aspects of his career.
Side Effects is a film that starts off as one thing only to reveal itself to be something completely different and immensely thrilling. The story follows Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) as she gets ready to welcome home her husband, Martin (Channing Tatum), from prison. Martin has spent the last four years locked up for insider trading and is eager to make a name for himself once again in the business world. Though the couple struggles to get their relationship back to where it was prior to Martin’s arrest, Emily’s chronic depression brings added stress to the marriage. When a suicide attempt lands Emily in the hospital, she agrees to begin regular therapy sessions with a local psychiatrist, Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law).
Originally from the U.K., but now working in Manhattan, Dr. Banks is quick to prescribe medication to all his patients. He is even offered $50,000 from one pharmaceutical company to recruit some of his patients for a study on a new drug they are trying to get released to the market. After a few sessions with Emily, and consulting Emily’s former psychiatrist Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), Dr. Banks agrees to put Emily on a new drug called Ablixa. At first the drug seems to work wonders for Emily as she is once again able to be intimate with her husband. However, disturbing side effects being to appear including a murder that Emily has no recollection of committing.
On the surface Soderbergh’s film portrays itself to be a commentary on America’s obsession with medication and mental illness. He smartly pulls the rug out from under the viewer, and even some of the characters themselves, and goes in a completely unexpected direction. What makes this film so thrilling is not the various twists, but how the characters react to these changes. This also impacts how the audience views the characters themselves throughout the film. For example, Soderbergh frames Dr. Banks in such a way that you are suspicious of his motives one minute and then sympathizing with him the next.
There will be those who will no doubt compare Soderbergh’s Side Effects to the works of Alfred Hitchcock, which is understandable. Yet the film feels much more akin to the works of Brian De Palma. In fact, Side Effects feels like a film De Palma wishes he could have made. There is a pulpy allure to the film, especially in regards to the plot itself. There are many aspects of the plot that are predicated on characters, and events, playing out exactly as planned well into the future. Though it is impossible to predict human reaction years in advance, like any good pulp novel, Soderbergh somehow manages to get the audience to willing take this ludicrous leap of faith.
Part of the reason for this blind acceptance has to do with the fine performances from the cast. Rooney Mara and Jude Law are exceptionally good in their given roles. Law in particular gives one of his best performances in years. He brings both a sleazy charm and shocking vulnerability to the role. His scenes with Zeta-Jones are brilliantly executed as the two doctors engage in an increasing battle of wits.
If Side Effects is indeed Soderbergh’s last film, then he is truly leaving on a high note. I would argue that Side Effects is one of the best films that Soderbergh has made in the 2000s. While there will probably be many who take issue with this claim, keep in mind that outside of Solaris, Traffic, and Che most of my favourite Soderbergh films are pre-2000. Watching Side Effects was like taking a mini-tour through the highlights of Soderbergh’s career from a stylistic stand point. Whether it was the way the camera focused on an object that had no relevance to the plot, or the minimalist approach he takes with the scenes emphasizing Emily’s depression, there are plenty of moments that will please many of Soderbergh’s devoted fan base. Side Effects is a good conclusion to a truly outstanding career.