Soderbergh’s last ‘thrill’ is a tough pill to swallow

Steven Soderbergh recently announced that Side Effects will be his last theatrical feature film, but he has certainly not decided to go out with a bang – rather a DNR declaration. The result is a fleetingly engaging yet generally tepid and underwhelming affair, a formulaic ‘90s medical thriller that initially appears substantial, yet fails to offer much in the way of intensity, depth, texture or genuine observation. In many ways, this is not surprising for a director well-versed in commercially exploiting viewer appetites for certain actors, soundtracks and themes that are of the moment (Traffic, Ocean’s Trilogy, Che). However, the ventures he has undertaken outside of his well-trodden, stylised habitat or his crony comfort zones of Pitt-mania and Clooney-ism have revealed his somewhat limited talent (The Good German, Eros, Full Frontal), and unfortunately Side Effects falls squarely into this latter category.


Formed of three distinct parts, the first delves into the workings of depression; the second is a series of cautionary lessons on the dangers of over-prescribing, disassociated big city life, and conspiracy theories regarding the shady practices of the pharmaceutical industry; while the third consists of standard thriller tropes propelled by the required number of revelatory double-crosses and hidden agendas needed to satiate an expectant and twist-hungry audience.


Emily (Mara) is reunited with her husband Martin (Tatum) following his release from prison after serving four years for insider trading. Emily inexplicably begins experiencing bouts of depression and following a failed suicide attempt, is referred to a psychiatrist  (Law) for treatment. He begins counselling and medicating her while simultaneously consulting with her previous physician (Zeta-Jones), setting in motion a contrived series of bluffs, frauds and intrigues between the trio. Conspiracy theories, consumerist morality tales and timely flashbacks waft aimlessly and untethered across the screen while a suspicious and increasingly pressured doctor Banks sweats, frets and stumbles his way towards the truth upon realising he is being exploited as a pawn in a far bigger game – a reworked The Fugitive without the prosthetics (or a fugitive).


From the menacingly soaring slow zoom that opens the film to the camera tracking a trail of blood through a New York apartment, audiences will undoubtedly be ready and willing to succumb to the initial charms of this would-be noir nourishment as it winks alluringly back to the Golden Age of Hollywood melodrama. Divested of her Dragon Tattoo, a pale-skinned Mara offers a detached and hauntingly convincing performance as a woman psychologically unravelling, and she almost single-handedly carries Side Effects into its second half, but inevitably buckles under the weight as the film descends towards its standard thriller finale. The problem here is that none of the narrative strings that are presented are developed to any level beyond the perfunctory before being abandoned for the next, leaving only style without content and form without function. While there is much value to be found in filmmaking for the sake of visual style and form over content (Leos Carax’s Holy Motors for example), it requires a skill set and understanding of the craft that Soderbergh sadly lacks.


Thus despite initially appearing to offer subtlety over sensation, Soderbergh and writer Scott Z Burns fail to create enough nuanced and meaningful visual and plot narratives to be subtle about.  They simply go about the business of taking a standard thriller template and skewing it slightly by underplaying performances and themes. The likes of Chan-Wook Park, Wes Andersen and Paolo Sorrentino have trodden this path very successfully, but only by encompassing these aesthetics wholly into the fabric of the film and by creating tension and drama through other stylistic choices. In the hands of Soderbergh however, they feel more like a plug-in.


Side Effects (11)

Dir: Steven Soderbergh; US thriller, 2013, 106 mins; Rooney Mara, Channing Tatum, Jude Law, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Vinessa Shaw
Premiered May 2
Playing nationwide