Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects is a hard pill to swallow knowing it’s his last feature film before his retirement from the cinematic medium.
The productive and versatile director has decided he’s had enough of endless over-the-shoulder shots and has chosen to have a break from the current state of Hollywood to make a foray into other ventures, such as painting. Good for him I say, he’s earned a break, but I really do hope it’s a break and not a permanent retirement from cinema, as he has always been in a minority that film-lovers needed, a last bastion of defence against the endless regurgitation of comic book blockbusters and crappy comedies.
Though he first made waves with Sex, Lies & Videotape, he first hit my radar with Out of Sight, a sexy thriller featuring Jennifer Lopez’s only decent performance. From that point on I would watch all of his subsequent films without question, and he always delivered, no matter what genre he tackled, because he tackled it with style and an enthusiasm for bucking trends, for not wasting millions of dollars by throwing the kitchen sink at the screen. His track record was no doubt aided by continually working with excellent screenwriters such as Scott Frank, Stephen Gaghan, and Scott Z. Burns.
He might have reached his peak when he was nominated for Best Director twice in the same year for Traffic and Erin Brockovich (first guy to do this since 1934). From that point onwards, though he had continued mainstream success, the pressures of an industry at the whims of risk-averse studios probably wore him down to the point that he was left pondering the ‘tyranny of narrative‘ in the modern era, as he puts it.
Side Effects begins as a gritty drama juicy with bubbling subtext, then expands into an observation of medicine in our culture, the pervasiveness of pills and our reliance on them, and finally settles into a genre film. Or as Soderbergh puts it, writer Scott Frank “has taken a social issue and used it as a Trojan horse to hide a thriller.”
Initially following Emily’s (Rooney Mara) nervous anticipation of reuniting with her husband (played by Channing Tatum) after a stint in jail, her mental state proves to be more fragile than anyone realised. To the point that she starts receiving help from a doctor Jonathan Banks (Jude Law). His prescribed medicine doesn’t help, so he goes to a Dr Victoria Siebert (Zeta-Jones) for advice, and she recommends him a new drug making the rounds.
Emily’s situation begins to improve with the new drug, but it’s not long before things start to go awry, until a full-blown waking nightmare descends on her, and as writer Scott Z. Burns amps up the dread, her doctor begins to get sucked into the vortex. But all is not as it seems. Hitchcock hijinks ensues!
Rooney Mara has proven to be an intense performer, giving the appearance of being a consummate professional. Personally I have not been plagued with images of her stumbling out of limos or making a fool of herself, so I am becoming a fast admirer of how she commits to her roles 100%.
Jude law has the most interesting role of the doctor, who floats on the edge of Emily’s story, and sinks into it thrashing about with the panic of a man about to be drowned. His life becomes tumultuous chaos once the media get wind of Emily’s case, and the culture of blame rears its head. It wasn’t her, it was her drugs. It wasn’t her drugs, it was the doctor who prescribed them.
Watching Law go into ‘crazy man who knows the truth but no one will believe him’ mode is fun, as Soderbergh directs in a modern homage to Hitchcock without it ever feeling like it. It’s just something you identify as a staple of the genre, but Soderbergh does it so effortlessly. He’s not one to wink and nod without grace (except perhaps with the Oceans films) and Side Effects proves to be a fitting end to his cinematic run, comprising of so many of his best qualities.
His subtlety and style, the lack of big budget, yet populated by the most promising, and often best actors, of their time. Soderbergh has a great legacy behind him, and as much as he might feel burned out on Hollywood, us viewers never felt burned out on him, he continually kept us on our toes for decades, and will be missed.