Steven Soderbergh recently announced his retirement from making feature films—and it was a bleak day for those who think “genre” is a dirty word if you love movies. Because if Soderbergh has proven anything over the course of his 20-plus-year filmmaking career, it’s that there’s no broad concept that can’t be executed with professionalism and style.
While Soderbergh is an Oscar winner who has made plenty of prestige dramas, he’s given it all a shot in his time: caper comedies (Ocean’s Eleven through Thirteen), science-fiction (Solaris), tough-guy crime tales (The Limey) and procedural thriller (Contagion). He even pulled the unique double feature in 2012 of bringing a respectable kick to both an action-vengeance tale (Haywire) and a movie about male strippers (Magic Mike). There’s something about the way Soderbergh tells a cinematic story that makes it feel elegant, even when your brain is telling you it should be preposterous.
His work certainly elevates Side Effects, the kind of thriller we might all be rolling our eyes at if pretty much anyone else had made it. The setup finds Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) reunited with her husband, Martin (Channing Tatum), after he has spent four years in prison for insider trading. But Emily’s history of depression re-emerges during this tumultuous time, and a suicide attempt lands her in the care of psychiatrist Jonathan Banks (Jude Law). After a variety of medications don’t seem to do the trick, Dr. Banks prescribes a newer pill that seems to have Emily on the road back to normalcy. But one particular side effect of the medication has unexpectedly terrible consequences.
For much of Side Effects’ first half, Soderbergh steers viewers deftly toward the tragic event foreshadowed in the opening shot. The structure of the screenplay by Scott Z. Burns (Contagion) makes it unclear whether the focus of the story will ultimately be Emily or Dr. Banks, giving us plenty of time both with Emily’s struggles to hold herself together and with Banks’ interactions with pharmaceutical-company reps ready to pay him for “studies” introducing their new drugs to his patients. Soderbergh’s own cinematography (still under his “Peter Andrews” pseudonym) and even sound-design choices—like the hollow echoes of the apartment Banks shares with his new wife (Vinessa Shaw)—help build the ominous sense that we’re about to watch corporate malfeasance backfire.
Then, Side Effects abruptly turns sideways. The specific nature of that shift veers into spoiler territory, so those specifics are best avoided. Yet it’s fair to say that Side Effects complicates the roles and motivations of the various characters in the key plot point, shifting the direction of the story into something more along the lines of a detective thriller than a morality play. And while it’s initially surprising, it’s also somewhat disappointing to watch the film turn into something where the narrative becomes almost entirely about untangling the “what really happened” part—and groaning at the fairly ridiculous revelations and coincidences at work—rather than digging into deeper questions about the consequences of America’s magic-pill culture.
Yet surface-level satisfaction is something Soderbergh rarely has trouble achieving. We may know that there’s an expository flashback sequence on the way, yet the editing is so smooth that you can almost forget you’re simply being spoon-fed what happened. He leads his actors to performances that convey a spiky realism even in the middle of a plot based on an elaborate conspiracy, whether it’s Law’s sinking-ever-deeper doctor or Michael Nathanson in a memorable small part as a district attorney. It’s a kinda-dumb movie that nevertheless feels smart.
That’s the upgrade Soderbergh brings to a movie: He’s a director who never treats his material as though he’s slumming it, just because the story isn’t about crusading single moms or complex international politics. Side Effects is the kind of movie you get when a filmmaker respects his audience enough to work his hardest on everything he does, even if plenty of people wouldn’t even notice if he only gave 60 percent effort. We’ll miss it the next time a genre movie is treated just as a “genre movie,” rather than a story that’s worth telling well, if it’s worth telling at all.
Rooney Mara, Jude Law, Channing Tatum