Side Effects is reputedly director Steven Soderbergh’s final feature film. While hardly the first time rumors of his departure have circulated the film community, it appears this time the gossip has validity. The man has often threatened retirement and now openly declares his desire to quit directing motion pictures permanently, effective after the release of this—his latest picture. Side Effects, a coldly efficient psychological thriller about a mysterious depressive and her well meaning if hapless shrink, is to be Soderbergh's swansong, then. In comparison to his best movies, however, it’s never as boldly original as Sex, Lies, and Videotape, his breakout; as deliciously enigmatic as The Limey, his little-seen gem; or as morally convoluted as Traffic, his Oscar-winning docudrama. Nonetheless, Side Effects makes a befitting coda for the veteran filmmaker, even if he is deserting viewers during this rather depressing dearth of skilled American directors. The film is intriguing and calculating, a twisted corporate mystery with one hand in real-world issues and headlines (the dangers and consequences of pharmaceutical malpractice, that is) and one in the steamy, Raymond Chandler realm of potboiler tradition.
In truth, Soderbergh has spent the better part of his career making these exact kinds of slippery political thrillers. Despite a few aberrant forays into mischievous capers (Out of Sight and the Ocean’s Trilogy), the director has specialized in slick, well-crafted adult dramas with intricate plots and culturally critical overtones. Often doubling as cinematographer—and one does notice the photographic technique at work in a Soderbergh production (the shallow focus, the colored filters, and the crisp images)—he’s neither self-conscious nor pretentious; he’s a genre filmmaker with a defiantly clinical approach to form and content. Because he regularly gifts a certain aesthetic polish to otherwise non-extravagant subject matter, he’s often criticized for underachieving. Is it possible, however, that Soderbergh never garners much “Modern Master” praise because he never seems to be striving for it? Once upon a time, Douglas Sirk and Samuel Fuller, two under-appreciated greats, brought virtuoso mastery to “generic” weepies and war movies. If Side Effects is truly his farewell picture, it’s proper that Soderbergh end his career the way he charted it: with an intelligent and unassuming drama.
Therefore, Side Effects is a pretty standard Soderbergh-ian entanglement of corruption and deceit. Dragon Tattoo actress Rooney Mara plays Emily Taylor, a glum young bride with a crooked husband played by Channing Tatum. He’s paroled after a four-year prison sentence when the movie begins. The stress of his long absence and sudden return exacerbates Emily’s already fickle mental health. While driving though an underground parking garage, she has a breakdown and accelerates her car into a concrete wall. If not a blatant suicide attempt, the accident is certainly a cry for help, or at least a moment of anxiety-induced bewilderment. As she recovers from a concussion in the ER, the hospital’s on-staff quack, Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), a partner in a lucrative psychiatric practice, pays a visit and agrees to release her, but only if she schedules a follow-up appointment. For the film’s first half, we watch Emily deteriorate gradually, like a vivisection of the psyche. She describes her depression to Banks as a “poisonous fog”, and in one scene, stands on the very edge of a subway platform as an express train screams by. Perhaps she’s waiting for a stiff breeze to push her onto the tracks and into Valhalla. Mara’s woman-on-the-verge is a haunting illustration of the emotional agony, the physical lethargy, and the mental frustration that comprise cases of acute depression.
After several of the name-brand serotonin inhibitors are either ineffective or disagreeable, Banks consults Emily’s former therapist, a frosty Connecticut doctor named Victoria Seibert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who suggests a recently released medication called Ablixa. As one can discern from the film’s title, Ablixa has some unexpected ramifications that are not included amongst the encyclopedia of possible side effects. The film’s second half shifts the focus to Banks, once his troubled patient forces him into a legal and professional corner. The script by Scott Z. Burns educes controversial questions of culpability: Is Emily responsible for her behavior when under the influence of a psychoactive narcotic? Is the company that produced the drug at fault? Or how about the doctor who prescribed it? Someone’s to blame when medications meant to alleviate pain instead magnify it. To a large degree, the film considers the questionable integrity of physicians who pass out pills to dependents like they’re Skittles at Toys R Us. Pretty much everybody in Emily’s life is hooked on one med or another and is more than willing to offer experiential recommendations. “Try Paxil,” says a co-worker. “Zoloft really helped me after my divorce,” claims another.
It would be easy for the creators to attack immoral pharmaceutical conglomerates—Soderbergh did just that in Erin Brockovich by chastising polluting industrialists—but the director’s decision to limit his story’s scope proves wise. We’re allowed to experience events through two protagonists’ dissimilar points-of-view. Emily’s world is torpid, fuzzy, weighted down by bemused melancholy. Banks’ is urgent and inquisitive. As the narrative surreptitiously morphs from a psychological meditation into a detective story, with Law’s Banks cast as the impromptu P.I., the director navigates the transition with aplomb, ditching Emily’s diseased subjectivity for a thriller’s pacing and directness. In an effort to clear his name, Banks, his marriage falling apart, grows obsessively determined to uncover the truth. The screenplay has a few tricks up its sleeve. Some, including an arbitrary and far-fetched secret love affair, don’t quite hold up. Nevertheless, the film exemplifies Soderbergh’s sophistication as a filmmaker, and with Mara’s convincing fragility and Law’s desperate stamina, the movie overcomes the chilly inhumanity that plagued 2011’s Contagion. With sinister doctor-patient role reversals at play (you know something’s wrong when the line blurs between those handing out pills and those swallowing them), Side Effects is a taut and immersive puzzle that bespeaks its resigning creator’s singular sensibilities.