For almost 25 years, Steven Soderbergh has been one of the most versatile and intelligent filmmakers in America. It took him one film, the Palme d’Or winning Sex, Lies, and Videotape, to revolutionize independent film. Then he did a handful of less successful, experimental films before turning George Clooney into a respectable, marketable movie star with Out of Sight, getting double-nominated for Best Director with Traffic and Erin Brokovich (winning for Traffic, both were also Best Picture nominees), and then engaging both in Hollywood franchise (Ocean’s) and making more experimental films whose topics ranged from the economic recession to Spalding Gray and films that blurred the line between the two (Haywire). And despite being on a run that is arguably his best yet, the reliable, versatile director has decided that Side Effects is his last film.
For just a while, it’s hard not to be okay with that. It doesn’t have the same harsh lighting and confined, deep-field shots of his more recent work—most of which were also shot and edited by Soderbergh himself—but the first 45 minutes of the film might be his richest work yet, thematically speaking. So many of Soderbergh’s films feel like exercises in one thing or another, and although they turn out well, they can’t shake the feeling of deliberate experimentation. Side Effects could be to the psychological thriller what Haywire is to the action film or Contagion is to the horror film, but it never feels like it. More than just an idea, there’s a full, clear vision at work here. It only takes a couple minutes of watching Emily (Rooney Mara) pick up her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) and soon after attempt suicide to see that this is a film that looks at mental illness and depression and takes it seriously. That means when characters talk about medication and its risks, it is realistic; when Emily talks about family life and supporting herself and losing her husband, those are side effects too. Just a couple quick lines about how Martin was behind bars for insider training and how Emily had to leave Greenwich, CT and we have all the conflict we need to intersect with her mental illness. This is the Silver Linings Playbook for people who did not like Silver Linings Playbook, the depression drama that shows how depression changes everything.
the casting—despite being conventional in comparison—is excellent, as we expect from the man who masterfully re-imagined porn star Sasha Grey as an expensive call-girl in The Girlfriend Experience, found a few ordinary people to star in Bubble, and made an actress out of MMA-fighter Gina Carano. Nobody will ever use Tatum as effectively as Soderbergh, and Mara looks and feels like her character, a less vengeful and more worried version of the Dragon Tattoo part that catapulted her to fame. When these actors are ready for their close-ups, they look as complex and uncertain as someone in their situation ought to be. The aesthetic, while far from flashy, is effective and, at the film’s most intense moments, appropriately disorienting. It’s a brilliant example of making the most of what you have and not trying to do too much. We know it’s him, but he never feels the need to prove it. Soderbergh is not trying to make a masterpiece here and as a result he looks to be making his best movie in quite some time.
You will remember I said “the first 45 minutes.” That’s because at a certain point, something happens and suddenly the movie is not about any of those things. Almost every note the film hits until this point is masterful, except it spends a little bit too much time with Emily’s psychiatrist, Jonathan (Jude Law). Jonathan becomes a major player, and to say anything beyond this would be to give away the film’s thrills and twists that it prides itself on. Unfortunately, these twists are increasingly ridiculous, and the film that at first tackles its serious subject matter with such grace sacrifices poignancy so it can continuously say to you, “bet you didn’t see that one coming.” Touché, but the anti-corporation note (competing firms and stocks become a large part of this beyond the insider trading) that it strikes is tired, without complexity, and at first takes the subtlety away from the far more interesting issue at work before making a mockery of them altogether. If you continue to look at Side Effects as a study of mental illness and depression, its conclusions are appalling. If you stop, the brilliance of the film’s first act is negated and Side Effects becomes a thriller that slowly but surely loses its thrills to the point where the ending feels phony, not unlike the masquerade the film so cleverly wears for its better half.