Saturday, February 16, 2013

Film Review: Steven Soderbergh's Side Effects

As we were leaving the theater, after a screening of Steven Soderbergh's Side Effects, my wife turned to me and said that Soderbergh sure knows how to make a creepy movie, even if nothing really creepy happens.  Can't really argue with that.  Though nothing overly creepy happens in the film, save for perhaps one sudden act of violence - the way Soderbergh moves his camera, the music choices he makes, or perhaps the lack of music in some cases, the way he choreographs a scene to make it more intense than it otherwise would be, all make for something on the level of a modern day Hitchcockian thriller - something that the great master of suspense would make if he were alive and kicking and making motion pictures still.  A film that, with very little really, grabs a hold of you and squeezes tighter and tighter with each and every plot twist and turn - and turnaround.  Squeezes you, that is, until Soderbergh thrusts forward, what I thought to be a cop-out twist ending - but more on that later.

According to Soderbergh, Side Effects is to be his final theatrical release.  After the HBO airing of his Liberace biopic sometime this year, the director claims he will retire - to concentrate more on his painting.  Now since first making this rather bold proclamation, the prolific and esoteric filmmaker, has back-tracked just a bit, now claiming it will probably be more a sabbatical than a retirement, which is a relief to this long-time Soderbergh fan.  Whatever the case may be, whether this is his theatrical swan song or not, Soderbergh has created yet another unique piece in the divergent puzzle that is the auteur's oeuvre.  Playing at peculiar obscurities (Kafka, Full Frontal), flashy popcorn flicks (Out of Sight, the Ocean's films), convoluted actualities (Traffic, Che), formal biopics (Erin Brockovich), bizarre docudramas (King of the Hill, The Informant!), cinematic performance pieces (the Spaulding Grey films, Grey's Anatomy, And Everything's Going Fine), action (Haywire), sci-fi (Solaris), gangster films (The Limey), and a few films that act as a miscellaneous category (Bubble, The Girlfriend Experience).   Soderbergh is probably the most eclectic, the most enigmatic director since Howard Hawks was last behind the camera, so if this were to be his final film, he is appropriately going out on a film that is unlike anything he has done before.

From the trailer, it appeared that Side Effects was going to be nothing more than a retread of the director's 2011 biohorror thriller Contagion - one of the few Soderbergh films I am not a fan of - but, save for a frantic Jude Law appearing in both, this film is really nothing like that film.   Starring Rooney Mara as a depressed and supposedly suicidal young woman, and Law as the psychiatrist who takes her on as a patient after a failed suicide attempt, the film is actually less about the titular side effects that cause even more havoc in this woman's already precarious life, and more about the things people will do when they are backed into a corner by the actions they have taken, or the actions they have thrust upon them.  It is about the lengths some will go to to, in order to escape the things they have done.    Not to give too much away - we want to keep Soderbergh's aforementioned twists and turns intact for their full narrative impact - Law's rather arrogant psychiatrist, while working on the side as a tester for a pharmaceutical company, prescribes questionable drugs to his new patient, which leads to tragic circumstances.  It is these tragic circumstances that lead to both Law's doctor and Mara's patient starting to frantically search for a solution out of their quandaries.  Both Law and, especially Mara (proving her kick-ass performance in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was not a fluke), give strong performances here, as does Catherine Zeta-Jones in a supporting role, but it is Soderbergh and his ability to put, as my wife alluded to upon leaving the theater, the creepy into the story, that makes this film as palpable as it is.

But then we get to the final act of the film, and the unraveling of a perfectly thrilling thriller.  Again, not to give anything away, Soderbergh builds a suspenseful narrative through his story (script by Scott Z. Burns, who also wrote The Informant! and Contagion) and his editing and his actor's work, and then hands us one of the cheapest, cop-out endings in a long long time.  Okay, maybe the ending here isn't to the ridiculous level of an M. Night Shyamalan film, but it still was bad enough - silly enough even - to warrant an upset grimace from this critic - not to mention an unverbalized WTF when it all came down.  The ending may not have ruined the entire experience for me, but it was certainly enough to make me wonder what Soderbergh was thinking.  Trite and quite unworthy of a Soderbergh-helmed film, this ending - which incidentally takes the whole idea of delving into the misuse and misdiagnosis of psychotropic drugs, and tosses it out the proverbial window - is pure let down, after watching a wonderful, and suspenseful - and creepy, of course - lead-up to such an ending.  That being said, I hope this ending, save for the eventually released HBO Liberace thing (with Michael Douglas, no less), isn't really the last taste we will get of the "retiring" director.


Alex DeLarge said...

I haven't felt the desire to watch a Soderbergh film since BUBBLE, which I though was a very good film. For me, THE LIMEY stands as the apex of his creativity. I didn't even know SIDE EFFECTS was one of his films because the plot and trailer are so mundane and without style. It's nice to see that there is some signature Soderbergh effect in his latest film but sounds like the ending is a contraindication.

Kevyn Knox said...

I have always been a Soderbergh fan. Both Haywire and Magic Mike made my top ten for last year. This one, if not for the ending would have probably made that list at the end of this year.

Dan O. said...

Although some of its twists and character relationships could be developed more clearly, the movie still comes through as a surprisingly engrossing thriller with fantastic turns from the whole cast. Nice review Kevyn.