For what will be Steven Soderbergh's last theatrical film in the U.S. (Behind the Candelabra airs later this year on HBO), the versatile filmmaker chose to make a thriller that has been described as pharmacological. Similar to his last film with screenwriter Scott Z. Burns, that being 2011's Contagion, Soderbergh preys on fears associated with what has become part of everyday life. Contagion featured a modern society encountering a global plague where an ordinary citizen could die from touching the wrong surface. In Side Effects, anti-depressants and the cultures of therapy and medicine are called into question thus creating an equal fear to parts of common life. Whatever one's view on the matter is (I'll briefly state I personally don't have too high an opinion on the issues), medicine has become a huge part of 21st century-living. More people than one might guess see a shrink and even more are taking drugs whether it be for sadness or attention deficits.
The film has two main characters and two stories in a sense with each taking almost a respective half of the film's running time. Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) doesn't feel so well after her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) comes home from jail after being arrested for insider trading. They both no longer live the "high-life", but she now moves through the day very idly until depression overtakes her to the point of where she attempts suicide. Mara as an actress is great for this part. She can appear equal parts comatose and invigorated as if Emily is holding something back (which it turns out she is...). The character is equal parts gentle, intense, and ultimately seductive and Mara with her first major starring role since Lisabeth Salander is once again a refreshing performer for what could be a tired part under another talent.
Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) is a doctor who first encounters Emily at the hospital and then welcomes her into his practice as a patient. After some research and an encounter with Emily's former doctor, Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), he decides to place Emily on a new wonder-drug called ablixa. Things then go horribly wrong from there. Leaving the plot description at that, the comparions to Alfred Hitchcock that this film has received, even if it be just the use of the word "Hitchcockian" in several responses, is very-much an apt comment. The film builds onto intself plot-wise, becoming more complicated but never entering a state of being over-convoluted like the best Hitchcock films were. Strangers On a Train is a great example- an unrealistic scenario, but nevertheless layered to be thrilling enough for audiences.
On the surface, these characters and circumstances could be seen as ingredients to a common thriller. Certainly the script is developed enough that it isn't surprising that a project such as this would be green-lit, but it certainly helps to have a director with notable flourishes to his style that could heighten the material to a greater level of entertainment. There is of course Soderbergh's aesthetic that has been prevalent in his films since his debut of Sex, Lies, and Videotape that was then mastered in Out of Sight, Traffic, Ocean's Eleven and continuing on til today. A mix of sensibilities ranging from hyperealistic to dream-like and always full of unique and oft-muted color schemes, over the past five years Soderbergh has transitioned into the digital video realm as professionally as ever. He appears to be such a visual thinker that his cast's work often seems so effortless (and before I talk about the performers, kudos to some great editing, sound design, and another brilliantly paced score by Thomas Newman).
Like Woody Allen, he can assemble many great performers to come work for him. As mentioned, Mara certainly shines, but Soderbergh films have also proved to be reminders of how talented sometimes-leading talent can be such as Law as Banks' understanding nature turning to desperation or even in Tatum's work with the director (Haywire, Magic Mike, and how this). My biggest gripe with the story is how quickly Banks as a character slips into full Parallax View mode. Law makes it as believable as he could, but looking back on the story, Banks literally goes from questioning motives to having charts in his bedroom, a disheveled appearance, drinking alcohol, and swearing in front of a kid all in the course of what seems like a single scene transition.
Still, a suspension of disbelief helps to cover up any misgivings. After all, creating illusions on screen are what the best filmmakers can do easily and Soderbergh is simply among the best- Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989), Out of Sight (1998), The Limey (1999), Erin Brockovich (2000), Traffic (2000), Ocean's Eleven (2001), Solaris (2002), Ocean's Twelve (2004), The Good German (2006), Ocean's Thirteen (2007), Che (2008), The Girlfriend Experience (2009), The Informant (2009), Contagion (2011), Haywire (2012), Magic Mike (2012), and that is only a fraction of his filmography having directed more quirky and independent fare or his role as a producer working alongside George Clooney for a while.
The one element of his films that I'll always remember would be his fascination with lying or better-worded as deception. Characters are having affairs, are con-men, facing bureacracy, lying to themselves, living double-lives, and with Side Effects there was an added lair of questioning responsibility- who is to blame for a tragedy (something that has become prevalent in the wake of several national shootings)? There can be nothing more exciting than when the audience knows something to be true that not every character recognizes. To once again compare to Alfred Hitchcock, having a character tell a lie that is knowing to the audience is one of the most simple ways to create dramatic tension and that is a trait I'll remember Mr. Soderbergh for- always being able to raise the stakes.