After 24 years in the movie business, indie film maverick and occasional Hollywood heavyweight Steven Soderbergh is calling it quits. Rising to prominence with sex, lies, and videotape—the film that helped launch the American independent film renaissance of the early 90s—at the ripe age of 26, Soderbergh’s career quickly fell back to Earth after a string of box office failures: the misunderstood Kafka, the underappreciated gem King of the Hill, the mediocre thriller The Underneath, the filmed version of Spalding Gray’s monologue Gray’s Anatomy, and the experimental satire Schizopolis. After almost a decade on the outside looking in, Soderbergh made a comeback with a string of critically acclaimed successes including the amazing crime caper Out of Sight, the minimalist noir The Limey, and a one-two punch of socially relevant drama, Erin Brockovich and Traffic (which earned him an Oscar for Best Director). The past ten plus years have been marked by a unique trajectory in which Soderbergh has run the spectrum from mainstream fare (the Ocean’s trilogy and Magic Mike) to independent experiments (Full Frontal, Bubble, The Girlfriend Experience) and a hybridic middle (The Informant!, Haywire).
His final film, Side Effects, finds Soderbergh back in that middle ground. On one hand, it’s very much a genre piece—a pulpy and writhing psychological thriller. Yet Soderbergh subverts our expectations, casting stars Jude Law, Channing Tatum, and Catherine Zeta-Jones against type. While these folks may be the sexy star equivalent to high voltage light bulbs, Soderbergh undermines their usual presences… much like his use of Gwyneth Paltrow in Contagion (also written by Side Effects screenwriter and frequent Soderbergh collaborator Scott Z. Burns). This subversion goes deeper than his use of actors, however. Side Effects begins with Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) picking up her husband Martin (Tatum) from prison. They were once a beautiful young couple, happily in love. However, Martin imploded their lifestyle by involving himself with insider trading and now they are struggling to pick up the pieces. Emily is has become the breadwinner and, faced with a life that is a pale facsimile of her old one, suffers severe bouts of depression. Shortly after Martin is released, she attempts suicide by driving her car into a brick wall.
This action places her in the care of psychiatrist Jonathan Banks (Law) who, on the advice of Emily’s previous doctor (Zeta-Jones), places her on a new, experimental anti-depressant. The medicine is slow to take; Emily compares her depression to a “poisonous fog” and contemplates suicide again. Then, suddenly, it works. Her life with Martin becomes happy and passionate…until something horrible happens. This inciting incident, which I will not spoil (even if the trailers venture towards doing so), pulls back the curtain of what the true intent of the film is. It may in part be a psychological thriller, but it is also a commentary on the dubious business ethics of the pharmaceutical industry. The film’s twists in plot and genre keep us in a state of unease (aided by Thomas Newman’s lightly churning score), the same state of unease that French critics Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton used to describe film noir. We begin to ask ourselves who the protagonist and antagonist of the film are, only to have our initial impressions swept out from underneath us… just like Emily’s previous life was taken from her.
In order to preserve this no man’s land of character identification, I need to be vague with regard to the plot while also trying to sell you on going to see a pretty good movie (or a great movie, in the context of the winter dumping ground). Soderbergh’s use of Mara’s affectless style is perfectly capitalized upon. Her performance style, particularly in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, rarely jives with me. Yet, while Dragon Tattoo bought into Mara’s “playing a role,” Soderbergh doesn’t. He uses her delivery to prompt our investigation and interrogation of it and she dazzles within these constraints. He treats Jude Law similarly, refusing to cast him as a charmer or the villain he cast him as in Contagion. The ambiguity of character and genre and the turning of the plot screws that Soderbergh and Burns give us are what make Side Effects work. At the same time however, this isn’t a film we haven’t seen before. It is tonally on par with the early work of Roman Polanski. Soderbergh is experimenting with the colors on the canvas while working within its frame, just like he did in Magic Mike.
However, it is worth noting that Soderbergh is abandoning film due to what he describes as the “tyranny of narrative.” Side Effects doesn’t capture that frustration in the way that Haywire did, with its minimalist approach towards plot and characterization and poetry of form. Regardless, I hope Soderbergh’s retirement is temporary and that his time working in other media forms (theatre, painting) recharges his batteries for another round, much like his experiments with Gray’s Anatomy and Schizopolis did in the mid-90s. He may not always be a great filmmaker, but his ability to remain interesting while being prolific is admirable and unique because so few directors (Woody Allen) seem to be capable of that.
Verdict: See in theaters