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

4.00

(15)

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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Thomas carried Lady Edith over the flames in her bedroom in Downton Abbey series five

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne, seated next to a picture of his missing wife Amy, played by Rosamund Pike

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel, Chandler and Ross try to get Ross's sofa up the stairs in the famous 'Pivot!' scene

Friends 20th anniversary
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham

books
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey

There’s revolution in the air, but one lady’s not for turning

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Syria air strikes: ‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings

    Robert Fisk on Syria air strikes

    ‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings
    Will Lindsay Lohan's West End debut be a turnaround moment for her career?

    Lindsay Lohan's West End debut

    Will this be a turnaround moment for her career?
    'The Crocodile Under the Bed': Judith Kerr's follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

    The follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

    Judith Kerr on what inspired her latest animal intruder - 'The Crocodile Under the Bed' - which has taken 46 years to get into print
    BBC Television Centre: A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past

    BBC Television Centre

    A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past
    Lonesome George: Custody battle in Galapagos over tortoise remains

    My George!

    Custody battle in Galapagos over tortoise remains
    10 best rucksacks for backpackers

    Pack up your troubles: 10 best rucksacks for backpackers

    Off on an intrepid trip? Experts from student trip specialists Real Gap and Quest Overseas recommend luggage for travellers on the move
    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world