Film: Side Effects is a jagged little pill

Emily (Rooney Mara) and Martin (Channing Tatum) in Side Effects. Picture: Contributed
Emily (Rooney Mara) and Martin (Channing Tatum) in Side Effects. Picture: Contributed
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For his final film, the ‘lucky bastard’ of cinema has again effortlessly thrown off a great piece of work, a slick yet twisted medical thriller

Side Effects (15)

Directed by: Steven Soderbergh

Starring: Rooney Mara, Jude Law, Channing Tatum, Catherine Zeta-Jones

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Steven Soderbergh bows out from movie directing not with an elaborate swansong but with a typically insouciant shrug of the shoulders courtesy of Side Effects, an effortlessly slick medical thriller that makes no grand statements or summations beyond being effortlessly artful and entertaining.

That’s as it should be. Since winning the Palme d’Or at the age of 26 with his debut feature sex, lies, and videotape (acceptance speech: “I guess it’s all downhill from here”), America’s most mercurial filmmaking talent has defied expectations at every turn: making movies at all budget levels, winning Oscars, embracing new formats, challenging narrative conventions, even injecting blockbuster sequels like Ocean’s 12 and 13 with French New Wave-style visual panache. As indicated by the title he chose for his wry book about filmmaking, Getting Away With It (Or: The Further Adventures of the Luckiest Bastard You Ever Saw), it’s as if his career has been a sort of ongoing, free-form experiment to see how many different directions he could push the medium at once.

Prematurely retiring (he’s only just turned 50) with a film that doesn’t even attempt to comment on what he’s accomplished therefore feels like the most appropriate way to abandon said experiment before the rot of repetition and self-absorption sets in.

Which isn’t to say the film exists in a vacuum. Those paying close attention to Soderbergh’s movies over the years will notice certain thematic through-lines (the disparity between economic wealth and happiness, the effect of corporate malfeasance on ordinary citizens, the complex relationship between money and sex). But like Magic Mike, Haywire and Contagion, Side Effects is less concerned with explicitly saying something important than it is finding an unusual and interesting environment in which to set a movie.

In other words, it’s not setting out to comment in any bogus or worthy way on the tyranny of its “Big Pharma” backdrop. Instead, Soderbergh uses the unscrupulous practices of multinational drug companies peddling psychiatric cure-alls to a nation addicted to self-improvement as a jumping- off point for a moody, sophisticated but gleefully twisty thriller that makes the implausible somehow plausible.

That’s no mean feat given the premise eventually depends on a healthy suspension of disbelief. But such is Soderbergh’s skill at drip-feeding the information from regular collaborator Scott Z Burns’ script (he wrote both Contagion and The Informant!), the film’s shock moments come as genuine surprises and its revelations, while playfully preposterous, remain enjoyably unpredictable when they arrive on screen.

Naturally that means the less you know going in, the better. It’s ruining nothing, however, to say that Side Effects begins by homing in on Rooney Mara’s character Emily Taylor, a young and somewhat depressed New Yorker, struggling to adjust to life with her just released-from-prison husband Martin (Channing Tatum). In a neat, modish touch, Martin is a white-collar criminal: a reckless (and fairly unrepentant) hedge-fund manager, arrested in the wake of the financial crisis, but now a reminder of the luxurious lifestyle that Emily bought into wholesale and has since had to downsize.

Unable to pinpoint what exactly has got her down, though, she finds herself lost in a fog of despair so overwhelming it lands her in the office of Dr Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), an overworked psychiatrist, who similarly aspires to a lifestyle beyond his means. This has recently led him to sign on as a highly paid consultant for the makers of a powerful new antidepressant, a drug he’s encouraged to prescribe to his patients.

Conspiracies, ethical debates and double-crosses duly follow as Emily, now under his care, has an adverse reaction to the treatment and Banks’ reputation is quickly called into question. Soderbergh, however, takes care to blur the lines enough so that audience sympathy migrates between both characters as the story zigzags in different, unexpected directions.

Here, both Mara and Law do good, strong work. Mara, last seen as Lisbeth Salander in David Fincher’s take on The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, is a haunted and somewhat beguiling presence, perfect for a film built around personality-altering medications designed suppress who you really are. Law, enjoying something of a creative rebirth now that he’s stopped trying so hard to be a romantic lead, also provides plenty of shading to make the film’s many red herrings less immediately visible.

Once again, though, it is Soderbergh who emerges as the true star. Letting content dictate form, he alters the mood of the film with clinical precision at crucial stages until its true nature eventually emerges.

That it reveals itself in the end to be just an expertly executed genre film is ultimately why Soderbergh’s imminent absence from the release schedules is going to be something to mourn: such casual and prolific brilliance is in scarce supply.