If the riveting old school styled thriller Side Effects truly manages to be the last film from acclaimed director Steven Soderbergh, he picked a hell of a film to go out on. It might not be the most ostentatious film in the director’s canon, but there haven’t been many thrillers this well constructed and efficient since the world lost Alfred Hitchcock. It’s purposefully twisty and melodramatic; a film evocative a style of movie making from a bygone era updated to a slick digital sheen to reflect modern fears and paranoia.
Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) has been struggling with depression since the incarceration of her stock trading husband (Channing Tatum). Desperate to get their marriage back on the right track following his insider trading conviction and release, Emily starts down a dark path that requires her to see a shrink (Jude Law) and begin a regiment of daily medication.
And at about this point saying anything more would be talking about actual details of what happens and diving headlong into spoiling the entire movie. Much like many of Hitchcock’s works, something happens in Soderbergh’s film about a third of the way in that changes the composition of the film entirely and sets things in an incredibly intense and entertaining direction. It becomes a stepping stone for a much larger conspiracy with a different set of ruls. The twists in the film’s plotting come fast and furious, but the definitely aren’t lazy or arbitrary. Every shot and second of the film happens for a distinct reason. The occasional lapses into the unsubtle or melodramatic are all part of the construct here. The script courtesy of Scott Z. Burn (with whom Soderbergh collaborated with on Contagion and the similarly tricky The Informant!) comes so tightly packed that it’s a wonder Soderbergh could put his authorial stamp on the material at all. But he does so admirably, crafting one of his most detail oriented and lyrical films in quite some time.
Amid Soderbergh’s cold, bleak looking New York City, it’s interesting to note how cleverly the scenes that are brightest lit are the ones holding the biggest clues to the greater mystery at the heart of the film. It’s a subtle touch among many here including some of the best self-lensed cinematography of his career. The frame pulsates with menace around every turn (with Skyfall composer Thomas Newman’s score adding a lot of character here), and viewers keyed into what Soderbergh is trying to accomplish here will have an absolute blast.
As for the actors Mara demands attention for the first half of the film as the depressed person lumbering their way through life. It’s the kind of a performance that seems admirable and nuanced at first watch, but one that stays with the viewer long after the film ends. Law doesn’t have the showiest of roles for the first thirty minutes or so, but when the pressures of his job start to get to him, he delivers possibly the best performance of his career. His strained relationship to his family and his own descent into depression and possible madness provides the human element a thriller like this needs to succeed. Also worth noting is Catherine Zeta Jones in a pivotal supporting role as Emily’s former shrink. It’s easily the best role she’s been given in almost a decade and she’s more than up to the task.
Much like many of Soderbergh’s other films of late, Side Effects is a comprehensive look at the inner workings of a given social system; in this case it’s the business side of pharmaceuticals and where blame gets placed when something goes wrong. But unlike many of his other recent films, this one evolves into the same intimate looks at relationships that he started his career with. It’s doubtful that he will be able to stay away from the big screen for too long (especially since he already admits he’s going to go back to do some television and theatre), but Side Effects feels like a more effective swan song than some would ultimately give it credit for. It aims to entertain, instil thought, thrill, and takes an analytical tone at times that’s refreshingly down to Earth instead of obtuse. It’s a film about people, a city, a structured society, and the stories we tell each other at the same time. It’s everything a great Soderbergh film should be, everything a great thriller should be, and one of the films that typifies why audiences see these kinds of films in the first place.