Steven Soderbergh, 106 mins (15)

Jonathan Romney on Side Effects: Sex, lies and big pharma

4.00

If this ingenious drugs drama is Soderbergh's final film, then he's going out on a high

So, farewell then (supposedly) Steven Soderbergh. America's most prolific film-maker claims that he's hanging up his megaphone. He has only one more movie up his sleeve, for TV – starring Michael Douglas as Liberace, gawd save us – and then we can all catch up with making sense of Soderbergh's implausibly diverse career. No obvious theme or style dominates the output of this hyper-industrious figure, who's been at once a Hollywood player and an independent; a mainstreamer and an experimenter; a director, producer, writer and, don't forget, a cinematographer and editor, under his twin aliases Peter Andrews and Mary Ann Bernard. You'd think he was trying to make things difficult for us.

Soderbergh's career is genuinely more than the sum of its parts, in that his overall adventure as a shape-shifter is more impressive than many of the individual films. He's made sleek entertainments such as the Oceans trilogy and Out of Sight; earnest state-of-the-world dramas (Contagion, Traffic, Erin Brockovich); sombrely eccentric experiments (The Good German, the heroically odd Kafka); solemn labours of love (Che) and flip oddities (the borderline unwatchable farce Schizopolis). He has sometimes been gratingly off-form, but he's one of contemporary American cinema's few devoted risk-takers.

There is, however, a consistently recurring theme. Many of Soderbergh's films scrutinise the ways in which people are subject to, and sometimes contrive to manipulate, the bigger forces that dominate their lives today: money, power, corporate systems, sexual politics. Soderbergh is an arch-observer, in a detached, sometimes studious way: you see his films and imagine his shelves of research files crammed with New Yorker clippings.

Soderbergh now ends his cinema catalogue with a neat tie-up, in that his career is bracketed by two tightly controlled miniatures for four players. He stepped into the limelight with his 1989 Cannes-winning debut sex, lies and videotape; now he leaves it with a story about sex, lies and pharmaceuticals. Side Effects is a sleek, masterfully executed but entirely unflashy entertainment. It's also one of those films that's practically impossible to review because you can't reveal too much of its sinuously devious plot.

The film begins with bloody footsteps on an apartment floor – then flashes back three months to a young woman named Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) visiting her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) in prison. He's due for release, having served time for insider trading. In a model of brisk, clean storytelling, short scenes follow the pair through Martin's release and return home. All bodes well, until Martin announces that he's in on a shady-sounding Dubai deal. Soon after, the haggard-eyed Emily drives her car into a wall.

In hospital, she comes under the care of a sympathetic psychiatrist, Dr Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), who tries to treat her with assorted anti-depressives. Some have unexpected effects – Emily sleepwalks, or gets flamboyantly horny. Then something drastic happens, leading us back to those footprints – and we're suddenly plunged into a tense legal drama involving the extravagantly profitable pharma business and questions of medical and corporate ethics. Side Effects turns out to be not quite the story we expected – then goes on to shift shape and focus yet again.

The four leads – including Catherine Zeta-Jones at her most feline, as another shrink – lend themselves gamely to being shifted around like chess pieces. Mara, so glacially spiky in David Fincher's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, retains some of that nervous intensity in Alice's alert, fragile manner; it's an intelligent, magnetic performance. As for the notoriously erratic Law, he was dreadful in Soderbergh's Contagion but more than redeems himself here as a smart operator digging himself ever deeper as he tries to extricate himself from a compromising situation.

There's an acidic streak of social satire in the depiction of new anti-depressives being marketed as the latest panacea. In this film's world, pharmaceuticals routinely fill American cupboards; every cocktail party conversation is about the comparative merits of Zoloft and Lexapro.

But on another level, the story is about the economy of knowledge – insider knowledge especially, whether concerning finance, drugs or plot twists. Soderbergh and writer Scott Z Burns are wonderfully stealthy about what they do and don't let on, and when. Like the film's doctors with their pills, they administer information in carefully calibrated doses.

The title is apposite, for the story works its own effects on the side. It's forever dropping hints in plain view that we don't pick up on until later; and its characters, and the lives they lead, are not what they initially seem. In fact, Side Effects proves increasingly cynical, its characters less sympathetic, more manipulative than we at first suspect. The film also turns out to be quite startlingly misogynistic, in a Brian De Palma-like way. But it's classy and ingenious, if somewhat pleased with its own deviousness: one of its most shameless narrative tricks involves, of all things, improper use of a truth drug.

What I like about the storytelling is that Soderbergh and Burns don't waste any element: everything has a part to play, and everything adds up, very satisfyingly (if not, some might think, 100 per cent plausibly). Most American mainstream cinema assumes a kind of ADHD condition in the viewer, as if we only go to the cinema to be lulled half to sleep. Side Effects takes it as read that we actually want to stay awake and alert; in its modest way, this is detox cinema of a very bracing kind.

Critic's Choice

Spanish stalwart Luis Tosar plays a psychopathic concierge in Sleep Tight, a highly effective Barcelona-set chiller. Meanwhile, on London's South Bank, the 27th BFI Lesbian and Gay Film Festival steps out in high style with I Am Divine, a portrait of the John Waters superstar and all-time trash icon (Thursday to 24 March).

Arts and Entertainment
Matthew Healy of The 1975 performing on the Pyramid Stage at the Glastonbury Festival, at Worthy Farm in Somerset

music
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe Withnail and I creator, has a new theory about killer's identity
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvDick Clement and Ian La Frenais are back for the first time in a decade
Arts and Entertainment
The Clangers: 1969-1974
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Rocky road: Dwayne Johnson and Carla Gugino play an estranged husband and wife in 'San Andreas'
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Nicole Kidman plays Grace Kelly in the film, which was criticised by Monaco’s royal family

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emilia Clarke could have been Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey but passed it up because of the nude scenes

film
Arts and Entertainment
A$AP Rocky and Rita Ora pictured together in 2012

music
Arts and Entertainment
A case for Mulder and Scully? David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in ‘The X-Files’

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Impressions of the Creative Community Courtyard within d3. The development is designed to 'inspire emerging designers and artists, and attract visitors'

architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
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.

    Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

    Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

    Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
    Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
    Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

    The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

    Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
    The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

    The future of songwriting

    How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
    William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

    Recognition at long last

    Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
    Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

    Beating obesity

    The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
    9 best women's festival waterproofs

    Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

    These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
    Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

    Wiggins worried

    Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
    On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

    On your feet!

    Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
    With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

    The big NHS question

    Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
    Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Big knickers are back
    Thurston Moore interview

    Thurston Moore interview

    On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
    In full bloom

    In full bloom

    Floral print womenswear
    From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

    From leading man to Elephant Man

    Bradley Cooper is terrific