With the release of Side Effects, director Steven Soderbergh announces his retirement from filmmaking. If the notably coy director’s words are to be believed, Side Effects is to be his final theatrical release and the upcoming HBO supported Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra his final venture into film overall. Soderbergh has cited frustration at the state of the industry and a desire to devote more time to painting as his reasoning, but as any number of his recent spew of releases (Side Effects included) prove; his departure is not a result of creative stagnation. If anything, Side Effects is a work demonstrative of a Soderbergh on the top of his game, showing an ease with a variety of genres, tones and styles and a remarkable finesse in moving seamlessly in between them. If Side Effects does in fact end up being the film that marks Soderbergh’s exit then as much as his distinctive mark upon Hollywood will be missed, he will at least bow out gracefully.
Side Effects, despite being a thriller that shifts form and genre multiple times through its denouement, presents itself initially as something relatively simple. A couple with the seemingly perfect life, Martin (Channing Tatum,) a successful trader, and Emily (Rooney Mara,) his devoted wife, see their desirable existence completely dismantled as Martin is imprisoned for insider trading and Emily finds herself struggling to cope with her increasing depressive turns. The film starts with Martin being released from jail, and Emily being prescribed with a fictional anti-depressant called Ablixa by her doctor Jonathan (Jude Law) after intentionally driving her car into a wall. Needless to say, given the multi-purposeful title of the film, Ablixa has a number of unfortunate side effects, both upon Emily’s body as well as upon the lives and careers of those connected to her and the drug as the film veers through a surprising, exciting narrative that requires as little description as possible in order to work.
Without revealing too much, while Soderbergh favourite Jude Law has a much greater involvement in proceedings than the opening movements would suggest, Mara’s character is the centre of the film. Rooney Mara, after demonstrating her mutability of both acting method and appearance by moving from bit-part university student in David Fincher’s facebook feature The Social Network to tattooed, gothic icon in his The Girl with Dragon Tattoo adaptation, proves again her versatility and skill in a role that is a lot more challenging that it might appear. Without making it explicit what the plot demands from her, Mara has the task of layering levels of acting in the role, all the while masking that this is being required of her. It necessitates a certain subtlety that a less skilled actress could overlook, blowing the twists of the film through a performance that made her position within it too obvious. Her performance is a great strength of the film, but also an accomplishment that is vital to the narrative’s success.
Most of the success of Side Effects however can be put down to Soderbergh himself, a real modern virtuoso who acts as cinematographer and editor on the film (credited under two different pseudonyms.) Constantly open to experimentation, he has been working with digital cameras from as early as 2002, shooting his feature Full Frontal with a Canon 1-XLs, well before such practise was a standard, and with his last few features his use of the digital format has been exemplary. Adopting a visual style that implements the extremely shallow depth of field that digital photography can offer creates a soft, luscious look that acts as both a visual style and narrative aid in his films, Soderbergh hones his camera on specific objects to make them subtly identified signifiers that hint at narrative clues, and in Side Effects), with its plot that continually asks questions of the viewer this is particularly effective.
This velvety look combines particularly effectively with Thomas Newman’s brilliantly eclectic score to create a palpable sense of unease. As straight as the onscreen events may seem, the murky blurs of the camera and the idiosyncratic beats of Newman’s score perpetuate the sense that all may not be as it appears. Visually, Side Effects could be seen as the culmination of Soderbergh’s recent digital features, applying the experimental techniques of his early digital-era films The Girlfriend Experience and the two part Che, with a conventional narrative akin to the more recent Contagion or Haywire, creating a film where the stylistic flourish is so appropriately applied that the film should have crossover appeal to fans of both brands of Soderbergh, the experimental auteur and the studio picture maestro, as well as to the unaccustomed viewer.
Side Effects is a film that presents itself as one animal, a fairly straight commentary on the twofold crookedness of the pharmaceutical and financial industries, but quickly reveals itself to be a different one entirely as it twists and mutates through a complex and increasingly silly series of Hitchcockian plot devices, cycling genres at will but remaining coherent despite appearing increasing farcical. Those expecting the moral play the opening suggests might feel disappointed, even misled, but few could argue about the efficiency of Soderbergh’s experienced hand in guiding the audience through the product Side Effects reveals itself to be.