One of the absolute greatest pleasures of being a film critic in this day and age is getting to periodically cover new Steven Soderbergh films. I do not know how many more ways I can express the giddy, excited rush I feel whenever I sit down to watch the director’s latest cinematic effort, but I know that the sensation only grows more and more intense as the speed with which Soderbergh makes and releases films increases. He is a fascinating filmmaker, one of the most eclectic, unpredictable, and technically adroit voices working today, and though his films only rarely reach their full potential, I am eager and enthusiastic to watch each and every one of them, for Soderbergh films, even at their weakest, are a little unlike anything else.
Side Effects, his latest feature, is the film I may submit as evidence of my viewpoint from this time forth. An intense, zany, manipulative, gorgeously executed mess of a movie, Side Effects is entirely designed to play one big, cruel prank on its audience, a punch Soderbergh delivers with vigorously precise gusto. I can easily imagine the director sitting in the back of the theatre, cackling maniacally as the increasingly loopy drama unfolds, and while I know I should be frustrated by the way the film betrays every single emotional investment one can have in it, I am also energized and enthused by the pervading sense of cynical anti-sentiment Side Effects ultimately strives for.
I imagine this all makes precious little sense without seeing the film, but there is nothing I can do about that without spoiling the entire experience outright. Side Effects is not ‘twisty’ in the M. Night Shyamalan sense of the term, where the entire point of the narrative lies in an abrupt, poorly developed rug-pull, but the film does take a sharp left turn around the midway point, and even describing the steps that lead up to that departure would do the reader a disservice. I shall tread lightly here, for going in cold is part of what makes Side Effects such a delirious pleasure.
I can at least discuss the film’s starting point, for few would be surprised to learn, from the title alone, that Side Effects opens as a story of depression, psychiatry, and medication. What is truly unexpected about the early material is how emotionally honest and socially conscious it all feels, with Rooney Mara’s character, Emily, serving as an intensely empathetic central figure. Her husband (Channing Tatum) has just been released from a four-year jail stint, compounding Emily’s already severe emotional turmoil, and Mara does absolutely tremendous work illustrating the character’s day-to-day mood swings and desperate search for help.
Assistance does indeed come, in the form of psychiatrist Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), a doctor who seems to care deeply for Emily and her problems. His therapy sessions, a simple yet profound outlet, start to make her feel better, until medication is thrown into the mix and complicates everything.
As someone who has struggled with depressive tendencies all my life, and has always been unsettled by the idea of mind-altering medication, I do not know if I can fully express just how on-the-mark the first act of Side Effects feels. Even when the zanier aspects of the story get underway, the material is almost overwhelmingly authentic, not just accurate in its deep understanding of the characters and their psyches, but also wickedly smart and provocative in its larger discussions of psychology and social repression. Soderbergh lays bare the ways American culture compartmentalizes psychiatric treatment, illustrating with stark clarity a world in which we are allowed to discuss our feelings and fears only in small, designated spaces, while medication serves as the omnipresent band-aid solution everywhere else.
It is one of the most emotionally and intellectually effective stretches of film Soderbergh has ever created, and had the film continued in this vein for its entire run-time, I have little doubt this feature would be viewed as a major artistic triumph. But the second half is quite different from the first, presenting a major shift in literal and thematic perspective, and once Soderbergh lays all his cards on the table, it becomes abundantly clear that everything I found interesting or rewarding about the first half is little more than an illusion. The film is an elaborate shell game, one that forges abundant emotional investment early on not so there can be proportionally vast emotional payoff, but so that when the viewer is eventually knocked down, he or she falls from a perilously high perch.
And you know what? I kind of love that. I am legitimately blown away by Soderbergh’s audacity here, his willingness to start from a place of profound human drama and eventually transform the story to a point where the audience is berated for caring in the first place. It is a cruel, sadistic game to play with one’s audience, and yet I am impressed and refreshed by Soderbergh’s ability to go this far. Though it is not invalid to read the film literally as a discourse on medication and modern society, this is a case where I strongly feel the meta of the storytelling is much more important than the actual text. The way Soderbergh stages and paces the action, gradually evolving the story into pulp-thriller territory, plays to my mind as a rather biting commentary on the way we get invested in fictional stories, a cynically clever argument against letting oneself be swept away by falsehoods, no matter how authentic they may seem.
As such, I spent a good chunk of Side Effects feeling betrayed and manipulated, but I cannot for a second deny that this is Soderbergh’s intention. Just look at Jude Law’s character; an audience proxy, Dr. Banks is a man who buys into what he sees at face value and pays greatly for it later. His frustration is our frustration, his feelings of failure and triumph echoed seamlessly in the emotional arc of the viewer. In a conventional sense, the narrative Side Effects delivers is practically the antithesis of rewarding, and yet I cannot help but find it intellectually fascinating and perversely pleasurable.
It is also one of the most astonishing technical triumphs I have seen in quite some time, even considering how many stylistically dazzling films arrived over the final weeks of 2012. Soderbergh has always been a remarkable visual craftsman, but Side Effects is just breathtaking to behold, one of the great feats of digital photography to date. Shooting the film himself under the pseudonym Peter Andrews, Soderbergh captures beauty, horror, and endless provocation in a highly recognizable modern landscape, even turning images as simple as a pill bottle into intensely suggestive visual statements. I am drunk, head-over-heels in love with every frame of this film, blown away by how much Soderbergh accomplishes with seemingly mundane sights.
Thomas Newman’s score is equally effective, and every member of the cast does great, memorable work. Side Effects is nothing if not well crafted, and though I cannot deny the film’s opening act is its most stimulating and effective stretch, I am more than satisfied with the direction Soderbergh ultimately takes. This is not one of his best films overall, but it is exactly the kind of work that defines what I have always found fulfilling about Soderbergh as a filmmaker. If this is indeed his last theatrical feature, as he has stated for some time now, I will be quite depressed to see him retire. This job just would not be the same without Soderbergh’s crazy, singular voice cropping up every few months.