Steven Soderbergh, who celebrated his 50th birthday two months ago, recently announced his retirement from the cinema in order to devote himself to painting. One would be surprised if he actually stuck to this resolution, but if he does he’d be giving up one of the most extraordinary cinematic careers anyone has ever had, and leave behind a remarkable body of work that few American film-makers could match.
Since winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1989 with his first movie, the low-budget independent production sex, lies and videotape, he has directed a film virtually every year in a variety of genres and styles, as well as producing some of the most original and adventurous films to come out of Hollywood these past 25 years.
Soderbergh’s pictures as director range from the openly commercial Ocean’s Eleven to the experimental Schizopolis; from a two-part biography of Che Guevara and a remake of Tarkovsky’s sci-fi classic Solaris to the best adaptation of an Elmore Leonard thriller, Out of Sight, and the true-life social conscience drama Erin Brockovich, in which Julia Roberts won an Oscar. As producer his films include I’m Not There (Todd Haynes’s bold fantasia on the life of Bob Dylan) and Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin. Soderbergh has also been the cinematographer (credited as Peter Andrews) and the editor (credited as Mary Ann Bernard) on most of his movies, including the latest, Side Effects.
Along with the variety of styles and subject has gone a consistency of themes and preoccupations, three of which he announced in that first film, sex, lies and videotape: eroticism, mendacity and a fascination with technique. Although Side Effects has an original screenplay by Scott Z Burns (scriptwriter on Soderbergh’s disaster movie Contagion and his whistleblower business film The Informant!), one can see why the director might have chosen this as a valedictory work. It brings together in synoptic form much of what he’s been doing for a quarter of a century.
Side Effects opens with a tracking shot along the floor of an austere New York apartment, following what has always grabbed our attention in the movies, especially since the coming of colour – a trail of blood. This implies a wound, a weapon, a body, a possible death, but whose?
The revelation, like much else in this cleverly constructed film, is postponed by the appearance of a title stating “Three months earlier”. Here we meet a young, attractive, middle-class couple, Emily (Rooney Mara) and Martin (Channing Tatum). She’s visiting him in jail where he’s completing a four-year sentence for insider trading on Wall Street, and they’re soon to embark on a new, redemptive life after losing their considerable fortune through greed and corporate crime.
Their renewed marriage is in trouble; Emily is clinically depressed, and an attempted suicide brings her into the care of a British psychiatrist, Dr Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), with a private practice and a job at a Manhattan hospital. He’s a caring, prescribing person, who happily puts his own wife on beta-blockers in preparation for an important business meeting. Pretty soon everybody in the vicinity seems to be deep in the valley of the dolls, taking uppers and downers, pills to stay awake and get to sleep.
Big pharma is all around, competing in a tough, highly lucrative market where greed abounds for the manufacturers who make the stuff and for the doctors who sit on advisory panels and then sign prescriptions for it. Dr Banks has apparently left Britain because Americans have a healthier attitude towards metal illness, but we also infer he’d like to get rich like everyone else around him. There are, however, side effects for the patients, and Emily is the centre of attention for the mood shifts and loss of perspective that is the downside of the treatment. We’re lured into a fascination with the world of corporate irresponsibility that Erin Brockovich dealt with. A whole society is engaged in keeping anxiety, doubt and chaos at bay, and Dr Banks finds an ally in the beautiful Dr Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a psychiatrist who treated Emily in her more prosperous times in fashionable Greenwich, Connecticut.
This engrossing moral drama suddenly takes another turn as we catch up with that introductory trail of blood on the apartment floor. The movie morphs into a psychiatric thriller of the sort Hitchcock helped launch with Spellbound in the mid-1940s and that led to a cycle of pictures about good and evil shrinks and their association with the criminal justice system. Gradually everything the viewer takes on board is wrongly labelled and travelling under a false passport, and Dr Banks finds himself less the physician than the patient, a Hitchcockian figure in a familiar transference-of-guilt situation. Instead of being a sympathetic medical investigator he has to become a ruthless real-life detective as his professional reputation is brought into question and malevolent forces threaten to destroy his world.
To say anything more specific or to convey more than the references to Hitchcock hint at would be to take away from the authentic surprises and the properly disturbing revelations that Side Effects has to offer. It isn’t a film of any great depth, and the narrative deceptions inevitably involve a degree of contrivance. But Soderbergh handles his actors with great deftness and gives the film an air of intelligence and social authority. Throughout he uses his proven skills as cinematographer and editor to draw us into a story that plays subtle tricks with our moral allegiances.
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