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).

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model of a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

    ... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
    Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

    Europe's biggest steampunk convention

    Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

    The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor
    She's dark, sarcastic, and bashes life in Nowheresville ... so how did Kacey Musgraves become country music's hottest new star?

    Kacey Musgraves: Nashville's hottest new star

    The singer has two Grammys for her first album under her belt and her celebrity fans include Willie Nelson, Ryan Adams and Katy Perry
    American soldier-poet Brian Turner reveals the enduring turmoil that inspired his memoir

    Soldier-poet Brian Turner on his new memoir

    James Kidd meets the prize-winning writer, whose new memoir takes him back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
    Aston Villa vs Hull match preview: Villa were not surprised that Ron Vlaar was a World Cup star

    Villa were not surprised that Vlaar was a World Cup star

    Andi Weimann reveals just how good his Dutch teammate really is
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef ekes out his holiday in Italy with divine, simple salads

    Bill Granger's simple Italian salads

    Our chef presents his own version of Italian dishes, taking in the flavours and produce that inspired him while he was in the country
    The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

    The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

    If supporters begin to close bank accounts, switch broadband suppliers or shun satellite sales, their voices will be heard. It’s time for revolution