After over twenty years of thrills, chills, sex, lies and videotape, Oscar-winning virtuoso director Steven Soderbergh is finally calling it a day, at least as far as the big screen is concerned. Though his eagerly-anticipated Michael Douglas-starring Liberace HBO TV movie is still to see the light of day, the Traffic director, jaded with the Hollywood studio system, stands firm that psychological thriller Side Effects will be his last ever cinematic release. Thankfully, this beguiling, unpredictable neo-noir proves to be one of his finest works since Ocean’s Eleven and is a more than fitting swansong.
Fresh from confounding expectations in David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Rooney Mara again dazzles as Emily, a troubled young woman whose life unravels when a new drug, prescribed by her psychiatrist, leads to some unexpected side effects. Magic Mike star and Soderbergh favourite Channing Tatum is on dependable form as Mike, Emily’s penitent ex-con hubbie whose release from the big house after some dodgy insider trading pushes his wife into an unexpected downward spiral of grief, depression and worrying behaviour. After seemingly purposefully crashing her, Emily meets with Jude Law’s ambitious psychiatrist Jonathan, who tries to get to the bottom of her condition and apparent desire to self-harm. Unsettling scenes of a strung-out Mara wandering the subway station in a zombie-like daze, and later struggling with awkward intimacy problems, reveal Emily is evidently a troubled soul, a challenging case that her new shrink vows to get to the bottom of. When her previous therapist (Catherine Zeta Jones), suggests Jonathan tries her on an experimental drug known as Ablixa, Emily’s life seems to be improving, when some catastrophic, unexpected aftereffects plunge everyone’s life into total chaos.
To reveal any more would be to do the film a disservice and would spoil the embarrassment of surprises it has in store. Working from a first-rate script from regular collaborator Scott Z Burns (Contagion, The Informant!), Soderbergh has concocted a cunning, intriguing conundrum of a film, full of secrets and lies, and where nothing is ever quite as it seems. After a slow-burning, but enticing and involving first half hour, Side Effects smashes all expectations by taking a sharp left turn into shocking horror territory. Then before you can fit the pieces back together, it changes tact once again, leaving the audience to question where our allegiances should lie and to wonder just where the hell Soderbergh is taking us.
Though the narrative is littered with devious unforeseen developments, the film’s intriguing momentum doesn’t hinge on its crafty twists, like much of M. Night Shyamalan’s oeuvre.. There is far more to this tale than cheeky, clever plot twists and even if in its final reveal, Side Effects isn’t quite as shocking as it thinks it is, Soderbergh keeps all the plates spinning right to the conclusion, delivering a neat thriller that will definitely mess with your head.
In its astute exploration of the manipulation of human behaviour, this twisting, turning, intensely cerebral thriller draws some fine performances from its leads, with Mara in particular offering a powerfully affecting, layered performance. With her emotive, doe-like eyes, the young actress plays haunted impeccably well and captivates as an enigmatic woman, straining under a complex, draining emotional heft, whose mask of bravery eventually slips before plunging herself and the unwitting audience down the rabbit hole.
Zeta Jones clearly revels in her small role, expertly portraying the self-assured, smarmy therapist with a performance winningly reminiscent of her High Fidelity bitch, while Tatum, who appears to grow with every brave new part he takes on, elicits sympathy as the distressed, helpless husband. His well-measured portrayal of wide-eyed, dismayed bafflement when the true depth of his wife’s mental state is fully revealed is effective and will surely chime with the emotions of the sucker-punched audience.
However, Soderbergh’s adieu really turns out to be The Jude Law Show, as the Sherlock Holmes star delivers a stirring turn as the doctor whose interest in Emily’s condition causes his entire world to unravel. Going through a whole gamut of emotions as the truth about his patient’s condition slowly comes to light, Law veers from slimily cocksure hotshot doctor, to worryingly anxious victim, then, finally, to vicious, vengeful hand of justice, and his intense, unhinged performance is impeccably satisfying.
A suitably ominous atmosphere is nimbly crafted by the use of Mark Petrie‘s affecting, ominous electronic score, soundtracking a pale, unforgiving New York skyline given a solemn, unfamiliar feel by stark blue filters that make the Big Apple feel like a disjointed, eerie place where anything can, and will, happen. This picture isn’t flashy or showy, Soderbergh proving he doesn’t need the bright lights of Vegas, car chases, shoot-outs and explosions to enthral his audience. This is lean, mesmerising film making, a tale astutely told without resorting to flambyant conjuror’s tricks.
If the curtain is indeed to fall on the career of this cinematic maverick, then Side Effects is a fantastic way to go out. It is a clever little film that asks where we point the finger of blame when our bodies appear to betray us and when medical science can’t offer a satisfying conclusion. It is a film about effects, about the fall-out of critical decisions we make from dodgy financial deals, to ill-judged medical prescriptions, and about how we deal with the consequences when those decisions we make suddenly blow up in our faces.
Soderbergh has never been a fan of Hollywood’s increasing inclination to reward films that deliver huge profit, over films that offer genuine invention and surprise, and though his final effort is a far-cry from the blockbusting neon razzle dazzle of his absurdly successful Ocean’s series, this small-scale, but perfectly formed thriller is one that will certainly appeal to fans of measured, nuanced, intelligent cinema.
His departure will be Hollywood’s loss.