Throughout his illustrious career, Steven Soderbergh has managed to steer clear of classification. He treads the oft-neglected ground of art house significance mixed with commercial viability, navigates various genres, and directs roughly one film a year. Despite all of this, he manages to maintain a filmography consistent in quality since 1998’s Out of Sight (with the arguable exception of Ocean’s Thirteen).
At 50 years of age, Soderbergh is reportedly calling it quits, and he has left us with a film that bears little resemblance to his previous efforts. The psychological thriller Side Effects stars Jude Law as Dr. Jonathan Banks, a psychiatrist tasked with helping suicide case Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara), whose husband, Martin (Channing Tatum), has just been released from jail. After several therapy sessions and various antidepressants, Emily is prescribed Ablixa. It gives her temporary relief, but also some unforeseen side effects.
The story drives on, following a template reminiscent of Hitchcock but ignoring convention and predictability; there are twists and turns aplenty. Soderbergh’s visual narration and effective use of music take precedence, but adept performances from Law and relative newcomer Mara balance the film. A breakthrough role in David Fincher’s The Social Network and subsequent The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has put Mara in the limelight, and she is continuing in a vein of troubled, mysterious characters that may become her niche. Supporting turns by Catherine Zeta-Jones and Tatum are low-key but aptly executed, slowly adding to the sense of paranoia inherent in the plots and subplots. Side Effects doesn’t get bogged down in pretension or theatricality either, opting for deliberate pacing in a modest 106-minute running time.
Composer Thomas Newman (The Shawshank Redemption, American Beauty) provides a score outside of his regular range, treading unfamiliar territory along with Soderbergh. While not known for thrillers, his natural style adapts to the genre impeccably. Not daunting or dramatic, but eerie and ever-present, the score is effectively understated.
The social commentary about the abuse of prescription drugs and the business of pharmaceuticals is not heavy-handed, but rather pertinent to the suspenseful narrative. Riddled with unpredictable plot twists and bolstered by strong writing, Side Effects ultimately succeeds with a disarming combination of Soderbergh’s polished yet innovative style, a chilling score, and strong performances from the leads. Never formulaic or predictable, Soderbergh has executed the edge-of-your-seat thriller with ease. It’s not a surprise to some, but it is disheartening as his directorial career comes to a close.
Next for Soderbergh is the TV movie Behind the Candelabra with Matt Damon and Michael Douglas, and after that, early retirement. His is a career that could have stretched another 20 years and countless more memorable films, but solace can be taken in the enduring body of work he has left behind. MMMM