2013, Steven Soderbergh
If his statements about his retirement remain true, Side Effects is the last theatrically released film we’re ever going to be seeing from Steven Soderbergh. While it will be a damn shame not to be treated to his incredible versatility and bottomless talent as a filmmaker any longer, he sure went out on one hell of a high point. Looking at the trailers and marketing for Side Effects would have you believe that the film was going to be about a young woman named Emily Taylor (played by Rooney Mara) who suffers from an addiction to anti-anxiety medication that she begins taking due to the pressure of her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) being released from prison. With Jude Law cast as her psychiatrist Jonathan Banks, it was given all the appearance of an addiction thriller that would be centered around a lambasting criticism of pharmaceutical companies and modern America’s over-reliance on prescribed medication to deal with the dilemmas that occur in our daily lives and the potential risks involved within that.
While this social commentary does serve as a running theme throughout the film, Side Effects is ultimately a world away from what the marketing would lead you to believe it to be. This isn’t me criticizing the marketing, but actually the exact opposite. It’s hard to really give too many details regarding the plot of the film, as the first act ends with a major twist that sends things careening into a vastly different direction than one would expect and that first shock is nothing in comparison to the ones that bring Emily and Jonathan’s story in a vast array of startling and unpredictable directions. The beauty of the marketing is that these days so many studios are afraid that audiences won’t come to see their films without knowing everything about them beforehand, so they spoil major twists or show the entire narrative in a two-minute trailer and basically rob the audience of any reason to go and see the film in the first place. The trailers for Side Effects, however, are almost entirely constructed out of events that take place within that first act alone and don’t touch on the events that occur after that first big gut punch of a twist.
I won’t go into those plot details here, but I will say that Side Effects is the first film in a long time where I had absolutely no idea where it was going to take me next and as a result I was pinned up on the edge of my seat for the entire duration of it. With every jaw-dropping revelation came another twist in the narrative momentum, yet it was constantly pushing forward without slowing down to take a breath and still never felt as though it was rushing too quickly for me to keep up. Written by frequent Soderbergh collaborator Scott Z. Burns (who had actually planned the film to be his feature directorial debut before handing it over to his pal), the sharply written script takes a wonderfully economic approach to layering out all of the many turns that the narrative takes and allows the audience to catch up before switching things again into yet another surprising direction. As I said earlier, I had no idea where this story was going to go from one scene to the next and it made for one of the most exciting and focused viewings I’ve had in quite some time.
A film like this, one that contains so many shocking turns, enters itself down a path with a lot of room for mistakes, but again it is to Scott’s major credit that it never gets too messy or contrived through any of the proceedings. There are surprises galore, but none of it ever feels like a gimmick, nothing that seems to exist purely for the intention of shocking the audience. Every twist is vital for the story as it is measured out and it’s the rare kind of twisting narrative that feels natural in its construction, rather than the large majority of “twist films” that seem to have been built purely out of that twist itself and consequently had the rest of the film lazily structured around that big reveal. Burns doesn’t build everything up to one big twist at the end or hit you with too many in a row, but rather evens it all out with a kind of rhythm that keeps moving steadily and doesn’t let your heart rest but also doesn’t fry your brain with too many turns.
Along with the efficiency in the narrative itself, one of the many great things about Side Effects is in the depth that it brings to its characters. The film centers around both Jonathan and Emily, with each getting plenty of spotlight and their own paths to embark down. It’s tricky here to go into much detail on the brilliance of this without spoiling anything, but the two characters are polar opposites and the way that Burns and the actors handle their portrayals compliment each other so well while remaining in stark contrast to one another. There’s an openness to Law’s portrayal in which the actor wears all of his emotions on his sleeve and keeps the audience in his corner and fighting on his side when the chips are stacked against him, while Emily’s fragile mental state makes her harder to read and even more fascinating to try and decipher.
I was admittedly not a fan of Mara’s Oscar-nominated work in David Fincher’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo so I went into this a bit wary of how much I was going to be able to admire her work, but she caught me off guard with a truly magnificent performance that I had no idea she was capable of. Suffice it to say I am definitely starting to see what these top directors in the industry are seeing in her, and if she can deliver more work of this caliber than I can easily see her becoming one of my favorites in short time. Her performance is probably the hardest to get into with much detail, but she is so incredibly believable and layered through every facet of her portrayal and her performance only becomes leagues more impressive as more of the plot is revealed and we discover more in regards to her state of mind. It’s one of those performances that starts off strong and only gains in excellence when you get to the end and are able to look back on how she built this character from start to finish. Truly phenomenal performances from both of them, one that I expected and one that I had no idea I was in for.
The script and the performances alone could have held Side Effects up to a very high standard, but it’s no surprise that Soderbergh doesn’t slouch behind the camera and as always his technical prowess is on very fine display here. As he’s done for almost all of his films to this point, the director also served as the the cinematographer and film editor on the project and he once again delivered tremendously on both fronts. He shoots at odd angles that keep the viewer somewhat separated from the characters while still being able to properly explore their faces and try to uncover the delicate psychology of each of them, whether it’s the obviously troubled Emily, the slowly unraveling Jonathan or any number of the supporting characters, such as Martin’s mother who is played by Ann Dowd in an impressive small performance.
Along with Soderbergh’s technical work I need to give a ton of recognition to composer Thomas Newman, whose score is so unexpected and yet completely fits what Soderbergh is going for and practically defines the tone of the picture through its distinctive nature and frequent, powerful usage. There’s a hypnotic, dreamlike quality to his composition that I found utterly transfixing and put me into a state that I wasn’t able to shake until after the credits rolled. Newman is a tremendous composer who has many great scores to his name (his 11 Oscar nominations should give some indication of that), but this may just be his finest to date, or is at least high among his top tier.
If you haven’t seen Side Effects yet, I do hope that you seek it out and hope even more so that you’re able to go in knowing as little about the plot as you possibly can. The film would work on its own merit regardless of how much you do know, but watching it as fresh as you can will really allow you to be floored time after time through its plethora of unexpected twists and turns. This is a film that I could never predict, and in a lot of ways that makes it a perfect swan song for Soderbergh himself. Here’s a director who has always gone against the path set out before him, jumping from Oscar-winning prestige projects to intimate dramas starring adult film actresses to throwback action flicks and pandemic ensemble pieces and rarely ever missing a beat. If this is to be his final picture I will certainly miss him as I truly believe him to be the most versatile and unpredictable director in the business, but it’s only fitting that he would go out on a film that you have no idea where it’s going to go next.