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.

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
Arts and Entertainment
Fake Banksy stencil given to artist Alex Jakob-Whitworth

art

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
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.

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee