Academy award winning director Steven Soderbergh started his feature directorial career with the brilliant Sex, Lies, and Videotape and seeks to finish with his latest and last Side Effects. Can the man that brought us such widely different but great films as Oceans 11 and Out of Sight finish with a flourish?
Emily Taylor had it all, the handsome husband, the rewarding career, the house in a wealthy suburb, even a boat…then her perfect husband gets indited for insider-trading and it all comes to an end. Cut to four-years later and she is reunited with her beloved after serving his time. With normality restored everything is again looking up for the beautiful young woman, until a suicide attempt lands her in hospital. Here she meets a charismatic British psychiatrist who diagnoses her with severe depression and prescribes a new wonder drug called Ablixa. This drug however does have one or two side effects…
Rooney Mara is utterly compelling as Emily, complementing her break-out role in David Fincher’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo with a dramatic performance of fragility, helplessness and despair that is filled with such believability that it suckers the audience. Jude Law too as the other lead is compelling as the doctor who is detached from his patients via the medium of his prescription pad. He’s own descent into self-doubt and desperation as his own world crumbles around him is just as engaging as Emily’s. The rest of the cast however are either unconvincing or under-utilised. Catherine Zeta-Jones is the former. Her Dr. Victoria Siebert never feels more than a plot-point even when she becomes integral to the narrative. Zeta-Jones offers no emotion to the role, trying to play an icy femme-fatale but coming off as completely detached and disinterested. Channing Tatum is the latter, in the film for a very short period, in which he does very little but look handsome. Given how his star has risen with recent roles, particularly for Soderbergh, it is a shame to see him reduced to wallpaper.
The script of Side Effects is very much a tale of two halves. The first half is the more engaging, the apparent incisive take on the world of prescription drugs and the American fantasy of “better living through chemistry”. It is here that the film is at it’s strongest as an indictment against the notion that all of society’s ills can be solved by popping a pill. The latter half as the film changes tact and becomes a thriller is less engaging, but it is still very good story-telling and offers plenty of twists and turns to keep audiences guessing. The cinematography on this is beautiful with a muted colour palette and the use of natural light giving the film a visual sense to match and drive the emotions. The way that Mara is framed low to the left adds a layer to her performance with the camera aiding in making the audience understand her as a victim of circumstance. And then there’s the score, with Thomas Newman’s sombre soundtrack drawing the aural sense in to complete the picture. The score is ever present as a reminder of tone, without ever becoming unwelcome or overpowering the narrative.
If this truly is to be Soderbergh’s last film then it is a fitting swansong to a marvellous directorial career. Side Effects is by no means perfect but it is an emotional powerful and brilliantly executed piece of film-making