As Steven Soderbergh’s distinguished career winds down—just one Liberace biopic forthcoming for HBO—it becomes virtually impossible to not reflect on the Oscar-winning filmmaker’s staggeringly diverse, influential body of work. Just in time, he adds “psychological thriller” (or psychiatric?) to his filmography with Side Effects. Unsurprisingly, the substance of a movie genre is again enriched with his latest, masterfully spare and confident effort.
Side Effects’s first act actually unfolds as the heart-wrenching portrait of a young woman, Emily (a fantastic Rooney Mara), whose crippling depression is seemingly re-triggered upon the release of her husband Mark (Channing Tatum) from prison after four years. As Mark attempts to pick up the pieces of their interrupted marriage as well as his professional life, Emily’s condition worsens, prompting her doctor (a never better Jude Law) to try out new drug on her which is still in trials. He also happens to be on the payroll of this particular Big Pharma manufacturer, as a consultant for the new medicine. Of course, this is a Soderbergh movie, so the audience can’t know exactly what’s coming, even if they’ve read the prescribed studio plot summary in advance.
Emily’s condition appears to start improving after the new treatment regimen, but the side effects are quite literally killer. Her sleepwalking is terrifyingly intricate—setting the table for the odd number of three, and preparing food. Mark arrives home one evening to find her cutting veggies, only for her to turn the knife directly into her husband. Someone will have to burn after Emily’s trial—either Emily herself, or her doctor and the prescription’s manufacturer. It’s a sudden and shocking turn of the screw after the audience has invested over 30 minutes close to tears over Emily’s broken emotional state. Her doctor believes she’s not responsible for the murder, but his professional reputation is on the line, threatening not only his employment by the drug manufacturer, but his partnership in his clinic. Law’s character eventually demonstrates more concern for his patient than his career, but he’s not ready to roll over quite yet, because he feels a bit too aggressively targeted by external forces that seem an awful lot like a conspiracy.
Since his 1989 Palme d’Or-winning feature debut with Sex, Lies and Videotape, Soderbergh has toyed with the theme of intentional misdirection as an undercurrent in whichever genre he’s tackled. As a filmmaker, he tends to embody these very themes—he’s stated that he doesn’t like his name attached to his work in a possessory sense. (Though as a filmmaker, Soderbergh certainly puts the “multi” in “multi-hyphenate,” often serving as cinematographer, screenwriter, and editor on his own films, under various pseudonyms.) His apparent lack of ego may be a reason so many big names return again and again to collaborate, no matter how small the project. (Just ask George Clooney.)
Side Effects is, ultimately, another example of the director’s commitment to fine craftsmanship above any identifiable fingerprint. His is a disembodied voice, ostensibly known only because he works within a power structure obsessed with the cachet connected to a name brand. Even his own two-part Che—a subject practically inseparable from heated political argument—was much more a romantic period piece and character study than any sort of comment on the man or the result of his influence. Soderbergh’s grandfather would have lived in Stockholm during the stylistic revolution of the Bauhaus manifesto—one has to wonder if that imposed lack of political and social agenda didn’t influence a young Steven.
For nearly a quarter century, Soderbergh’s respect and fascination in regard to the work itself has made even his purely academic experiments and failures interesting, if not eminently watchable. Clooney will continue working under their co-owned Section Eight Productions, providing some continuity; contemporaries like Danny Boyle may continue to prove themselves as adaptable to wildly shifting genres and studio-system release structures. But once Soderbergh officially trades his celluloid for canvas, it’s safe to claim the cinematic landscape will be a touch grayer, and the fine art world a touch more stimulating.
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Writers: Scott Z. Burns
Starring: Rooney Mara, Jude Law, Channing Tatum, Catherine Zeta-Jones
Release Date: Feb. 8, 2013