Film review: Soderbergh bows out on a high with Side Effects



If this is, as promised, Steven Soderbergh's final movie, he's signed off on a crafty, bamboozling high with Side Effects. Perhaps we should pause to salute a film-maker who has managed to be prolific without abusing quality control, or not much. True, I cordially despise the whimsical fodder of Ocean's 11/12/13, his daft satire The Informant! and those nutty experimental efforts (Schizopolis) he allowed himself now and then. Consistency hasn't been his strong suit, but then it wasn't Robert Altman's either.

Soderbergh has made more good than bad, and even when not at his best his films have been founded on intelligence, craftsmanship, a willingness to take risks and a determination to keep entertaining. If he hasn't made anything quite as funny and inspired as his 1989 debut, sex, lies and videotape, then let's admit it was a hard act to follow.

What's interesting about Side Effects is that it starts out as one sort of film and ends as quite another. After 20 minutes or so you may have placed it as a medico-moral drama in the style of his earlier Erin Brockovich, with a pinch of his disaster flick Contagion thrown in. From the story of one woman's mental illness questions of guilt and retribution ripple outwards. That woman would be Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara), a young Manhattan professional who has been waiting for her husband (Channing Tatum) to be released from prison; he was convicted for insider trading four years previously.

Once reunited, they have a hard time picking up the pieces. Evidently fragile, and perhaps severely depressed, Emily raises a cry for help when she drives her car at speed into a wall. Recovering in hospital, she is attended by Dr Banks (Jude Law), a psychiatrist with a decent bedside manner and a private agenda: prescribing a new antidepressant, Ablixa, he hopes to benefit from enrolling Emily in a drug trial that will earn him $50,000 on the side.

We know from the start that this will not go well. The opening scene noses through a city apartment whose floor is slick with blood, lots of it. Someone has been murdered, but who? This is left poised as the narrative tracks back three months earlier to Emily's mental travails.

What sets up the movie so artfully is the casting of Rooney Mara. Cleaned of the goth warpaint that made it a mask in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Mara's face is subtly difficult to read, even when not hidden by a curtain of light-brown hair. Her wide grey eyes are possibly innocent, possibly calculating. Her voice is a puzzler, too, attractively husky at one moment, then adenoidal at another, like she's got a bad cold. The evidence indicates that this woman needs careful handling, and when things turn from fretful to fateful the issue of responsibility suddenly becomes critical. Was Dr Banks' original diagnosis of her condition faulty? Was he too much influenced by Big Pharma when he prescribed the new wonder drug?

Written by Scott Z Burns (Contagion), the script finds a good, tense rhythm in its personal and professional confrontations. It furnishes just enough medical science for us to feel flattered, and enough uncertainty in the crosscurrent of motives to keep us guessing. Here, too, Soderbergh's casting pays off two (arguably huge) risks. If you'd told me Jude Law was about to give his best performance in years I would have shrugged and said wake me up when it's over... But relieved of having to play the heart-throb, Law really is convincing as the shrink who has got himself in a panic, not merely accused of medical malpractice but suspected by his wife (Vinessa Shaw) of extramarital diddling: the look she gives Emily when the latter throws herself on her husband's mercy is a great "women beware women" moment. Soderbergh has spotted Law's capacity for playing the weakling, and turned it to advantage: you're right there with him as he sweats under the cosh.

The other surprise is Catherine Zeta-Jones as a therapist who treated Emily in the past. Zeta-Jones's mid-Atlantic accent has always sounded to me an avatar of phoniness, and her acting has tended to follow suit. Here she projects a porcelain confidence that's showing the tiniest crackle in the glaze; like Law, she has settled into a mature phase, no longer dependent on vamping for her effect. It's also her chance quotation of a line from William Styron's memoir of depression – he describes it as a "poisonous fog" rolling over the victim – which marks the film's significant change of tone.

From its title alone one might assume that Side Effects is partially an indictment of the pharmaceutical industry, of the liberal traffic in prescription drugs and the questionable motivation of psychiatrists in handing them out – like a medical-ethics version of Soderbergh's Oscar-winning Traffic. Well, so much for assumptions. That might have been an interesting movie, but it's not the one he's concocted here, which is a suspense thriller, spiked with a touch of noir.

To reveal any more would be to spoil the fun. Let's just say it's pleasingly unpredictable. Soderbergh has slipped us a Mickey Finn and worked up an atmosphere of deception that's very persuasive. His clever camera movements (he's also the cinematographer, pseudonymously credited as "Peter Andrews") and shrewd edits betoken a director right on top of his game. The insinuating score by Thomas Newman links together the sidelong character study of the early stages and the switchback of the latter. With a second viewing, it may look even more accomplished. And so he bows out. Forever? We must hope not, otherwise this will be the maddening reminder of a career prematurely snuffed.

Arts and Entertainment
Shades of glory: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
    Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

    Flesh in Venice

    Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
    Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

    Juventus vs Real Madrid

    Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
    Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

    Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

    Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power