The Review: If you look in the dictionary for the definition of the word eclectic, you’ll see that it was updated a couple of years ago to read simply “Steven Soderbergh’s career.” Not content to be like namesake Spielberg and to successfully straddle the multiplex and more thoughtful fare, it’s as if Soderbergh deliberately sets out to distance himself from as many elements of his previous work as possible. Even his Ocean’s sequels varied wildly in tone, style and content, with Thirteen almost feeling the odd man out for being a little reminiscent of the original. When you use a phrase like “Soderbergh’s career” it has a certain finality to it and if the rumours are to be believed then Side Effects is the last time we’ll see a new film from Steven, at least for a fair while, so that Side Effects proves to be a surprisingly efficient and taut thriller and a fitting valediction for one of the last two decade’s most distinctive cinematic voices.
That his films are so recognisable may be down to the sheer level of work he puts into their production; over the years he’s written, produced and even composed and Side Effects sees him working as editor, cinematographer and director on the same film for the sixth time in his career. It’s a refined, almost cold visual aesthetic but one that is subject to deliberate rhythms and pacing, and this might just the the most effective combination of those three skills yet. It’s a slow start as regular Soderbergh scribe Scott Z. Burns sets out the playing field, with Rooney Mara’s Emily struggling to deal with the return of husband Martin (Channing Tatum) from prison after a stretch for insider dealing. When she attempts to deal with her onset of depression in dramatic fashion, she comes under the care of psychiatrist Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) who attempts to find the right drug to help her deal with her difficulties. It’s not the first time that Emily’s needed help, and her previous counsellor Victoria (Catherine Zeta-Jones) suggests a new drug, Ablixa, might be the best option of those not already tried, but it may just be the start of Emily’s real problems…
Soderbergh’s back catalogue is written through Side Effects like a stick of rock: as well as the crisp digital photography and the economy of the script, which never wastes a word even during the deliberately paced set-up. He’s got form in the political arena, and for the opening stretch Side Effects seems to be setting itself up as a thorough examination of the cynical and profitable pharmaceutical industry that’s practically spoon fed to most of America. (There’s an interesting, and telling, line where Jude Law comments on the difference between his practice in the US and how different it would have been in the UK had he stayed.) But it’s also never that simple in a Soderbergh film and there’s enough twists and turns packed into the second half to keep even the sharpest audience on their toes. The more the film progresses, the more the narrative takes on a classic feel, and it wouldn’t have been a stretch to imagine Bernard Herrmann coming up with a similarly jittery score to Thomas Newman’s nervous stylings, or indeed the likes of Cary Grant or James Stewart taking on the Jude Law role had this been made fifty years ago.
Soderbergh’s always been an actor’s director at heart, ultimately as concerned with performance as he is with image, and most of the cast have become regular collaborators. While Zeta-Jones and Tatum are both on their third outing with the director, it’s Jude Law’s sophomore turn that anchors Side Effects, and it’s around 1000% more effective than his embarrassing Australian from Contagion. Where Contagion was chilling but sprawling and at times unfocused, Side Effects coils itself more and more tightly and it’s a showcase both Law and first-timer Rooney Mara, utterly believable as the depressive Emily. It’s undoubtedly a film of its time, with much to say about modern lives and current struggles, but it’s possibly writer Burns’ most effective script to date and it’s hard to imagine anyone except Steven Soderbergh working today being able to play it out so effectively, especially in the way that possibly sensitive themes such as depression and the financial crisis are not only handled, but then not undermined when the narrative takes one sharp turn after another. It’s maybe fitting that someone so focused on the image of his films is supposedly taking his break to work on his painting, but given that he’s still got cinematic treats like this within him, let’s all hope that it’s just a sabbatical and not the last we’ll see of him.
Why see it at the cinema: Soderbergh is a master of his art and every image and sound is lovingly crafted. The darkness of the cinema will also help focus you into the tightly wound tension that Soderbergh crafts, especially in the second half.
What about the rating: Rated 15 for strong language, sex and violence. No argument, and it’s certainly a more effective film at this rating as it’s really one pivotal scene that earns this rating, which would have lessened the overall impact had it been cut to 12A.
My cinema experience: Saturday morning at my local Cineworld in Cambridge; having pre-booked my ticket I thankfully sailed through to the cinema, to be joined by the usual crowd of single men taking in a Saturday morning film with clearly nothing better to do. Thankfully we weren’t submitted to any projection problems.
The Corridor Of Uncertainty: The film started twenty-three minutes after the advertised time, which for me was a complete relief; having struggled to find a parking space I arrived in just as the BBFC title card appeared on screen.
The Score: 9/10