Soderbergh flick a thrilling psychological trip ‘Side Effects’ bends genres—and your mind

Side Effects is potentially the last theatrical release from director Steven Soderbergh. This is the man who brought us Hollywood blockbusters like Ocean’s Eleven and Magic Mike, and also arthouse oddities like Sex, Lies, and Videotape and the five hour biopic Che. Soderbergh claims he will, at the least, take a sabbatical from filmmaking after his upcoming HBO project Behind the Candelabra, so Side Effects is the last opportunity to see one of his films in theaters in the forseeable future.

So how does a man like Soderbergh choose to end his eclectic career? With Side Effects, a bizarre blend of a psychological drama and a thriller. The film begins by displaying the aftermath of some horrific event, with blood staining an apartment floor, then flashes back to three months prior, to show how that event came about. It’s a conventional structure, and the film sticks to that structure in the opening act. Rooney Mara plays a young woman whose husband, played by Channing Tatum, is about to be released from prison for insider trading.

The narrative follows their attempts to return to a normal lifestyle, while Mara struggles with her own depression. That depression eventually leads her to a psychiatrist, played by Jude Law, who attempts to help her.

For the first act of the movie, this all plays out as a traditional drama, albeit one with a deft hand for treating depression honestly. Mara has difficulty finding the right antidepressant for herself, and the film is respectful of the difficulties depression can cause in a person’s life. Then, about 30 minutes in, the story begins to change.

I won’t get into specifics here, because part of joy of the film is watching that story unfold. It isn’t even so much that the twists are impossible to predict, as there are only so many ways this kind of story can play out, but the film does a remarkable job of avoiding the clichés of a thriller while becoming exactly that type of movie.

The story told in the film’s final moments is unrecognizable compared to the grounded drama of the first act, but it transitions between the two styles seamlessly.

One of the ways Soderbergh maintains that continuity over the course of the film is through a consistent visual style. Much of his recent work, particularly disaster flick Contagion and bare-bones action movie Haywire, has been marked by a clean, efficient style that is impressive without being flashy, and Side Effects continues that trend. Soderbergh packs information into every shot, because he is confident the audience will be able to keep up. Conversations frequently begin while the camera is still showing the establishing shot of the building, and once locations have been introduced Soderbergh moves between them without feeling the need to reestablish them.

As the film progresses and the plot begins to move in stranger directions, the visual style stays constant, helping to create a mood of discomfort.

Of course, Soderbergh is experienced enough to also know how to work well with his actors, and Side Effects does an excellent job of showcasing its cast, particularly Rooney Mara’s performance. Mara’s breakout role was as the lead in the American remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and while that was an impressive performance, it was also a deliberately bizarre character. Here, Mara plays a comparatively normal woman, and she excels in the role. In the early scenes, as she attempts to hide her depression from those around her, Mara manages to show her character’s inner turmoil while also putting on a brave face for the rest of the world.

And as the plot progresses, Mara is given some of the largest challenges, and she is fully up to the task.

Soderbergh shoots the film adeptly to capture the cast’s performances. In particular, there are a number of close-up shots of characters as they learn new information, and in each instance the actors are able to simultaneously display shock at the news, and also quickly interpret what that information means for them. Jude Law gives a performance that at first seems restrained, but eventually gives way to a much more complex character. It takes a while for the film to allow him to do too much, but his subtle work in the first third of the movie help to ground his character’s later actions.

Channing Tatum continues his streak of being surprisingly good, perhaps to the point where I should stop being surprised, and Catherine Zeta-Jones appears in a secondary role that still manages to give her an interesting character to work with.

It is somewhat rare for movies today to be truly surprising, when every film has to release three or four trailers to generate excitement, but Side Effects manages to be innovative without resorting to a cheap twist ending.

Even if you have seen every trailer for this film, you will walk out of the theater having seen something different than what you expected.

The film accomplishes this by not simply relying on the beats of the plot to be shocking, but by conveying them to the audience in a novel way. It’s fitting that Soderbergh ends his own career full of surprising choices and detours with a thriller that confounds expectations constantly. Soderbergh’s voice will be missed in the coming years, but Side Effects is an impressive note to go out on.

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