Steven Soderbergh has proved himself to be one of the most interesting American directors working today. Primarily noticeable for his shifting of genres – with commercial big projects such as Ocean’s Eleven and Erin Brockovich giving way to smaller, less conventional movies such as Sex, Lies, and Videotape, and tighter genre flicks such as Contagion – Soderbergh is a director willing to experiment, though his movies do tend to have a focus on form and structure. His 2012 flick Magic Mike proved interesting for its subverting of expectations. What appeared to be a trashy movie sold on the basis of Channing Tatum’s torso proved to be a far more complicated, interesting little character study, and his latest movie, Side Effects, follows a similar thread. It is a movie designed to keep audiences guessing, never quite presenting the full picture and constantly shifting in unusual ways. Soderbergh has recently announced his retirement, with Side Effects potentially his final picture – if so, it’s a great little movie to bow out on, a tense thriller which really manages to surprise.
The film opens with a wide tracking shot of an apartment covered in blood; before any answers are provided, the film turns back on itself, with a ‘three months earlier’ title taking the audience back to Emily (Rooney Mara), a young woman suffering from depression. The release of her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) from prison doesn’t amend her situation. In fact, what should be a joyous time is tainted by Emily’s shadow of depression, and in a moment of madness, she attempts to take her own life. This leads her to Jude Law’s Jonathan Banks, a caring doctor who is willing to put his own life on hold for his patients. In attempting to crack Emily’s depression and with the help of ex-psychiatrist Dr Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), Jonathan tries his patient out on an experimental new anti-depressant, one which may have devastating side effects.
What’s most surprising about Side Effects is that initially, it seems to be a fairly standard movie dealing with depression, a small character study looking into the mind of a damaged young girl and her floundering relationship. The audience feel, within the first half hour or so, that they have the plot sussed. As Emily begins taking her pills and strange side effects begin to emerge, it seems we’re presented with a standard narrative on the evil nature of corporations – in this case pharmaceutical companies – and the new nature of the world, with doctors lazily trying to prescribe anxiety away with no focus on the individual. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before.
Then we catch up to the blood-stained beginning, and the film twists into dramatic new territory. What was a tired statement piece becomes a tense, tight little thriller, with Jonathan finding himself thrown into a twisting conspiracy plot which constantly keeps the audience on edge. To say anything about what happens in this section of the film would be to spoil the story, what can be said however is that the story refuses to go where the audience expects it to, and just when it seems to have levelled out there’s another great twist.
It’s difficult to guess where this movie will end up, and that’s fantastic. It’s a movie about surfaces, and the truth below, where nothing is quite what it seems, and everything could change at any second. Side Effects stands as fairly old-fashioned film making, borrowing a lot from Hitchcockian thrillers of the past, particularly the notions of mistaken blame and framing. It’s rare to see a movie quite so plotted and makes for a fun ride in the cinema, in a movie which almost demands to be seen a second time. Of course, were you to stop and pull threads, the movie would probably come apart, and some of the twists are actually quite contrived – but the movie moves at such speed and feels so confident and intelligent that the audience is constantly racing to catch up. There’s no time to stop and breathe and that works in the movie’s favour, pushing the film into smart thriller territory, a wonder of form and pacing.
The cast are fantastic throughout – Soderbergh can handle his actors and everyone gives a great little performance. Channing Tatum convinces in a more mature role, getting more mileage out of his character than others would. We really do feel the strains in his relationship with Emily, his need to do well versus his failings and her depression. Jude Law delivers an initially charming, likeable performance before breaking the role down into something more paranoid, and ultimately, something more confident and considerably darker. Jones is sultry and sexy in her role as the doctor who may have something to hide. The highlight however has to be Rooney Mara, fresh on the success of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, she proves herself a highly competent actress and delivers a tragic, tight, and ultimately very clever dual role. A second viewing would really highlight how strong she is here – certainly one of the future young actresses to watch out for.
Side Effects is one of Soderbergh’s stronger movies – an excellent little thriller, well acted, which constantly keeps audiences guessing. It makes for a great time at the cinema, and if this is Soderbergh’s final movie, it’s a great one to end on. An old-fashioned plotted thriller and one certainly worth a watch.