Not without its undoubted highs, it’s fair to say that Steven Soderbergh’s directorial career has been something of a mixed bag. Despite a blistering start, with his Palme d’Or winning debut, Sex, Lies And Videotape (1989) effectively serving as the blueprint for American independent film in the 1990s, the outspoken ‘auteur’ then spent most of that decade sliding further and further into obscurity with a series of flawed, frustrating and ultimately unsuccessful features.
Regaining his creative compass with 1998’s Elmore Leonard adaptation, Out Of Sight, the relative critical and commercial success of that picture – coupled with his potent creative relationship with star George Clooney – found the director propelled back into the limelight.
Capitalising on that success, between 1999 and 2002 the prolific Soderbergh produced a golden run of films that included the Terrence Stamp starrer The Limey, the Oscar winning double whammy of Erin Brockovich and Traffic as well as the hugely successful Ocean’s Eleven and the hauntingly elliptical adult sci-fi of Solaris. But nothing lasts forever, and this window of relative creative consistency soon gave way to another period of extended frustration both critically and commercially.
However, since the announcement of his ‘retirement’ from movie making in early 2011, Soderbergh seems to have rediscovered something of his former glories thanks to the box-office success of pandemic thriller, Contagion (2011) and the surprise US smash that was Magic Mike (2012).
Proving that those two successes were no fluke, Soderbergh’s newest film, Side Effects, stands as possibly the most engaging and entertaining picture the director has made since his late 90s/early 00s heyday. Greenlit as a last minute replacement project for his aborted Man From U.N.C.L.E remake, Side Effects is a taut, tight and engaging thriller from the pen of frequent Soderbergh collaborator, Scott Z Burns (Contagion, The Informant!).
Initially following the story of Emily (Rooney Mara), the long suffering wife of Martin Taylor (Channing Tatum), a former financial whizz-kid recently released from a four year prison stretch for insider trading, Side Effects soon starts to give the hint that not all is as it appears.
Having struggled with depression during his incarceration, Martin’s release finds Emily distant and alienated from her husband, and this addled state of mind culminates in a seemingly failed suicide attempt when Emily drives her car into a concrete wall. While in hospital, Emily comes into contact with psychiatrist Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), who initially wants to keep her in a secure facility under observation.
However, after pleading with Banks to let her go home to Martin, Emily is allowed to leave, but only on the condition that she attends regular sessions under Banks’ supervision. Putting her on a variety of anti-depressant medications with no real success, Banks consults with Emily’s former psychiatrist, Dr Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones) who suggests he prescribe her a new drug called Ablixa.
Reluctant to prescribe her the new medication, it’s only after a second suicide attempt that Banks acquiesces and prescribes the new drug. Seeming to work, albeit with the occasional side effect of sleepwalking, Emily begins to live a normal life once more. However, while sleepwalking one night, Emily stabs Martin to death in their apartment.
Despite being charged with murder, Banks successfully fights for Emily’s acquittal, claiming she killed Martin as a result of the side effects of Ablixa. As a condition of this outcome, Emily pleads temporary insanity and is placed under observation in a mental health facility prior to her eventual release back into society. Unfortunately for Banks, a side effect of the case for him is that his professional standing is destroyed, and he’s soon left high and dry by his partners, refused consulting work with the District Attorney, and kicked off of lucrative clinical trials. With his life falling apart, Banks is convinced he did nothing wrong in his treatment of Emily, and so begins to look at the case in more detail. But as he looks closer at the facts surrounding Emily, Martin, Dr Seibert and her relationship to Ablixa, he begins to see a pattern forming…
For the first two-thirds of its running time, Side Effects is not only the most compelling film Soderbergh has put together in over a decade, but also one of the best paranoid thrillers in recent years. Tense, ambiguous and edited with both confidence and precision, Soderbergh manages to create a mood of isolation and tension that recalls both Hitchcock and Polanski at their finest.
Beautifully shot on the Sony RED Epic camera, Soderbergh’s HD cinematography is also sumptuous throughout, with the lush look of the film giving it a dreamy hypnotic quality that works brilliantly with both the subject matter and Thomas Newman’s effective score.
However, despite its technical superiority, it’s in the performances that Side Effects really scores big. Coming off the back of her star making turn in David Fincher’s stylish Stieg Larsson adaptation, Rooney Mara is excellent as the ‘is she/isn’t she’ Emily, while Jude Law delivers probably his strongest work since The Talented Mr Ripley as the ethically compromised Banks.
Building on his breakout role in Magic Mike, Channing Tatum brings real star quality and charm to the essentially minor role of Martin, while Catherine Zeta Jones is impactful in the small but crucial role of Dr Siebert.
However, despite the film’s hugely effective opening two-thirds and stellar performances, Side Effects does stumble in its final act as events finally come into focus and actions are explained. On one hand, Burns’ resolution is a neat one and does makes ‘sense’ within the world of the story we’re being told, but at the same time its decidedly pulpy nature jars with the potent tone of tension and ambiguity that the director manages to conjure elsewhere.
These minor niggles apart, Side Effects is still a thoroughly entertaining and gripping adult thriller which maintains a tight focus throughout and finds Soderbergh firing on all cylinders for the first time in over a decade. On this evidence, let’s hope those retirement plans end up being delayed.
Side Effects is out in UK cinemas on the 8th March.
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