Feb. 13, 2013 - Issue #904: The Sugar Trade
Soderbergh's swan song sidesteps the predictable
—Steven Soderbergh, January 2013
Partly out of frustration with the movie business and the current "tyranny of narrative" in cinema, the most prolific and assured indie-mainstream-straddling American filmmaker of the last 15 years is retiring (to pursue painting and theatre). Steven Soderbergh offers Side Effects, from a script by frequent collaborator Scott Z Burns (The Informant!, Contagion), as his swan song.
Both Soderbergh and Burns mostly sidestep any didactic or predictable plotting with their visual- and mood-makeovers to an audience's genre expectations. The opening—a zoom-in on a window in a city building, à la the beginning of Psycho—clues us in to this being a thriller, but the film then slips into an effective social-commentary drama about pharmaceuticals. And even when it twists back to Hitchcockland, there's more than enough lingering spookiness about a culture's dependence on prescription drugs and psychiatry to wrench Side Effects away from being a mere trickster-tale.
Soon after Emily (Rooney Mara) reunites with her husband (Channing Tatum), released after serving time for insider trading, she slips into depression. Dr Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) treats her, eventually prescribing a new drug, Ablixa, that seems to help, though it causes her to sleepwalk. Then, one evening, Emily does something that will destroy either her or Banks's life, though Emily's old ties to Dr Elizabeth Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones) suggest the truth's not what it seems.
Early on, Soderbergh's eye, crisp and cutting, slants us into Emily's mindset: a vertiginous shot of a building, looking up from the sidewalk; shallow-focus close-ups or close-ups that offer a lot of negative space (echoing the cold, hollow world of Emily and Martin's pretty but empty bourgeois New York); slo-mo tracking of Emily's trancelike sadness. Even when the film glides through investigation and thriller territory, Burns offers some sharp dialogue about the eerie everyday-ness of depression (if it's about not having much hope for the future, aren't many of us often depressed?) and murder (a decision you make over and over, day after day). The story flirts with the notion that easy, individual-based narratives (legal, medical) are simplistic delusions ... before it tightly ties up all the loose ends.
Acting-wise, the film's mostly Mara's and Law's, the former offering, amid deceptive shots of her girlish youth (her slight frame and some of her outfits), some stunning scenes of near-catatonic hopelessness, while Law embodies an over-worked, concerned doctor soon bound on saving himself. (The film's weak character-link and plot-point rests on Zeta-Jones's vamp, a too-chilly female out of Basic Instinct.) It's this constant, venal self-interest and save-my-career obsession—the flip-side of, say, a director getting out of the film business to spend some time on more personal passions—that, along with our possibly last glimpse of Soderbergh's sharp eye, over-drives Side Effects beyond mere thriller and into a social-chiller.
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
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