Steven Soderbergh is known for his two pronged approach to directing,his swift swapping between charming crowd-pleasers and alienating art-house pictures; its a process that has gotten him a pretty great career but I would argue that era is now over. The man has been promising his retirement for years, since six odd films back and looking back I’m starting to believe that he meant it, that the Soderbergh we knew stopped making movies back when he said he would. Ever since, let’s say The Informant, he has taken a new tact to film-making which is to take the skeleton of a crowd-pleaser, cut it apart and through some twisted crypto-taxidermy logical process reform it into something with an indie spirit.
Haywire was an all-star action blockbuster that would really only appeal to fans of ballet and pure physical motion; Contagion was a disaster movie without special effects, where society died a slow, truly scary death and Magic Mike was a movie sold on the tagline of “Channing Tatum takes of his shirt!” And yet it tackled real life social strife in more honest a manner than any Sundance movie of the same year. So although this film, Side Effects, is advertised as a slick thriller starring a cast of charming, chiseled young actors I knew that nothing would be quite as I expected. Still, I didn’t expect at all for the film to be this.
The simplest way of describing Side Effects would be ‘Bubble with a budget’ but despite besting the simple label of ‘thriller’ that still really doesn’t do it justice. The surprises in Scott Z. Burns’ script are a lot of what makes this movie strong and so I would be crazy to spread the story out here in any detail but suffice to say what starts off as a kitchen sink romantic-drama about a couple attempting to come back together after some trouble quickly turns into a sort of filmic adaptation of a psychologist’s case file: filling us in on the patients history, psychosis and potential treatments in a cinematic but clinical way. This is what the trailer suggested, with its shocking first act spoilers, and this is what we get, but only for a little while.
Then come the big twists in both plot and perspective, the picture perverts into a madly conceited murder-mystery, then swaps protagonist and becomes a corporate conspiracy as the world crashes down around our hero; a man who would normally be the villain in these stories a change that turns the usually torturous moves of the third act into a revenge fantasy of sorts. So yeah, I sort of did just spill the structure but it can hardly prepare you for what is to come it this supposedly slow and straight-laced drama from Scott and Soderbergh. He takes a whole host of familiar tropes and turns them on their heads perfectly, predicting our every insight and then reverting the attached reaction.
Many will find this a frustrating, confusing or entirely unnecessary approach but it is exactly this brave nature that most fascinates me about Soderbergh as a storyteller; that he doesn’t bow to the expectations of an audience or the structures laid down in stone by the canonical masters past. What makes me most love him is that he has the class required to back up that most bold confidence; despite the jagged nature of the film’s plot he eases the pieces together so that they flow perfectly, the jump only noticeable once you have landed and are looking back from the other side.
His visual techniques too are trademark gorgeous, the term ‘gritty’ is belched up all to often these days as a sort of synonym for dark and serious; Soderbergh is both those things and yet not a single shot or frame from this film could be described as having ‘grit’. They are instead clinically clean, smoothed over and blown out with blunt fluorescent light, yet they convey the same exact sense, conveying so much through a simple fuzz or flick of the focus. New York City, perhaps the most pictured place on earth, is given a fresh feel here; he warps it into an almost claustrophobic place wherein the depths of different streets seem nonexistent, or worse mirrored illusions of some sort. The glass and steel and rain and grey don’t hit you like they do in a Fincher film but you feel them all the more for their subtlety and unrelenting nature.
These visual tricks are all most evident when Steven is pointing his camera at star Rooney Mara; something that Fincher clearly also learnt after that infamous shot in The Social Network. She has a quality about her that seems to somehow exaggerate the style of every shot she graces, as if her vibe or vibrations somehow seep into the film stock before it is developed. Unfortunately her character isn’t the most developed but despite that her hypnotic heroine is the one that will catch your eye in ever single scene, often because most of hers are shot simply as a framed close-up of that face. Law too is surprisingly strong as the film’s second lead, this is his first meaty perspective role in a while and his sympathetic performance here shows why that is such a shame.
So sure it’s surprising and sure it’s good, but what is Side Effects actually all about? That’s a harder question to answer. The trailer seems to sell it as a story about the dangers of psychiatric drug use but I left the film feeling none of that, unsure that Tom Cruise could use any of it in his unfortunate quest. There is a big focus on the medication side of mental health – we see the slick salesmen, the bounty awarded for taking part in trials, the way that the names of these narcotics enter our everyday life, how they are normalised – the but early on its more of an exploration and by the end a mere setting. Is it then a treatise on mental health?
At first I would have said yes, that it was doing what Silver Linings gets credit for and forcing us to take a look at the lives of those affected by these behavior altering afflictions but this too is undercut. Honestly despite all the prescriptions and possibilities – every character could be diagnosed at one stage with some sort of ailment – I left the film feeling that none of the characters were actually insane in even the slightest, they were simply flawed in their thoughts or feelings and took drugs as a facade for that because this is what we twenty-first century people do. The score is all discordant xylophones and glockenspiels, it evokes a lullaby gone awry, a failed fairy-tale and this is what the film feels like to me: A cautionary tale to be read in the same style as ‘The Boy Who Cried Wolf’ or some such.
Don’t expect to leave the film with an answer any clearer than that but do expect to leave it looking for one. In the moment this is a slick, sexy, scary and stunning drama but its nowhere near as shallow as its style may suggest, there are deeper, darker questions asked here that you will be left pondering. Is this a crowd-pleaser? Based on the stilted reaction at my screening maybe not. Is it an art-house artist pleaser? Not quite. There is as much pulp present in the picture as there is philosophy, as many scenes that challenge as those that simply look cool – cool in the way that Oceans was cool. That same heist mentality is occasionally present here – and yet I can’t even say that it is a clear hybrid of the two approaches. This seems like something else again, perhaps the progeny of their combination. Whatever the case Side Effects is a strange and satisfying film that has me excited for Soderbergh’s next steps, wherever they may take him.