If it were not for the absolutely amazing and impeccable work being put out by Paul Thomas Anderson I would be in line to call Steven Soderbergh the best director currently working in film. Always consistent and always pushing his limitations the rather unfortunate news that he is considering retirement is of great concern to film critics and cinephiles the world over, especially since he is making a conscience decision to move onto other non-film related endeavors. Given his keen concern for perfection I am sure his next ventures will be met with much success, but it is still a bummer to think about, especially since films like Contagion and Bubble have received high praise and are certainly among some of my favorite films of their respective years, and I am a defendant of both The Informant! and Magic Mike as being highly underrated, yet keenly engaging films. In fact, Soderbergh as a filmmaker represented on this blog is just short of the recently reviewed Kim Ki-duk for having the most films in which I have written full reviews. Where Soderbergh does seem to be winning is in the area of receiving the most comparisons, scrolling through some of my past reviews it is rather clear that I associate a certain sort of deep focus minimalism with the director and deservedly so because he continually delivers a high quality product in a packaging that is clearly distinguishable as his own. This is certainly not an exception for his most recent film Side Effects, which comprises itself of a handful of actors Soderbergh has relied on in the past and visually defines his auteur status, even if this proves to be his last film, aside of course for his highly anticipated HBO movie, Behind the Candelabra which is about, of all things, Liberace, a subject so sensitive that it could only work in the delicate surgeon-like hands of Soderbergh. If Side Effects proves to be his final feature film then so be it, while it will certainly not stand to be his best work, it is still an exercise in excellent filmmaking and takes a plot with twists and deception and never allows viewers any moments to reside if comfort. I was one of two people in the theater watching this movie, but when a certain, very violent scene occurred I was aware of my own gasps of astonishment, as well as those of the other person. Unsettling would be the word to describe these moments, but considering that it is generally an absolutely bleak and stark film, one could never really define the viewing experience as welcoming.
Side Effects in all its multi-person narrative centers on two main figures, the first being Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) a woman who is suffering from various degrees of psychotic breakdowns as a direct result of losing her illustrious and well-to-do lifestyle after the arrest of her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) after being found guilty for insider trading. She is happy about his release from prison, but when the stress proves too much she drives herself into the wall of a parking garage, thus leading to her being hospitalized for suicidal tendencies. It is there that she meets the doctor on duty, psychiatrist Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) whose hopes of finding success and a great future for his fiancee and her daughter have led him to take up extended shifts, as well as agreeing to more work with experimental pharmaceuticals. However, when a combination of anti-depressents and anti-sleepwalking medicine lead to Emily violent stabbing her husband, Jonathan's involvement with the girl is put into question, especially since it appears as though he was solely responsible for the misdiagnosis and its subsequent fatal results. In the process, Emily's former psychiatrist Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones) steps prominently into the picture spouting advice and opinions about Emily's past mental issues. When it becomes evident that Victoria has her own interests at heart and that Emily is consistently attempting to undermine Jonathan's well being, he takes it upon himself to delve deeper into the case and prove that his actions were not to be blamed for Emily's terrible acts. Of course, the added burden of this preoccupation with innocence leads to his being chastised for poor performance at work, which causes his fiancee to question his motives, only worsened when a set of compromising pictures surface, suggesting that Emily and Jonathan had a relationship that extended beyond patient/client lines. This last form of loss leads Jonathan to throw everything at proving his innocence, an act that proves beneficial, although incredibly trying for the young doctor, however, he proves that deception is afoot and that proving one's sanity may well be more difficult than arguing for their insanity.
Much like his stellar film Contagion, or any film by Soderbergh that focuses on a specific subject, Side Effects deals with the world of prescription drugs, to be specific anti-depressants, in a near ethnographic manner. The low key manner of his filmmaking and concern for story and character over visual flair leads one to constantly have to remind themselves that what they are watching is indeed fictional and far from full truths. Perhaps this works exceptionally well in regards to this film, because it is decidedly concerned with the frail line between reality and illusion and to what degree one can cross those lines in the name of escapism or self-preservation. At various points throughout the film each of the main characters engages in their various forms of deception, each with their own ulterior motives and desires, it is not a question of the ethics of the act of lying or purposefully deceiving the world, because as many Soderbergh films have done in the past, this is a relational issue. People in the world of his films, and, to some degree, the world outside the theaters, are prone to deception as long as it assures the happiness of those around them. I would be hard pressed to find even the most sanctimonious of people who do not lie in the face of despair or sadness to push towards the possibility of happiness. This certainly seems to be the case for the relationship between Emily and Martin, they had an entire life of all they desired predicated upon high degrees of lying and deception and when the light is thrown upon this lie, it is hard to maintain the performance even in the most intimate of settings. As such, Side Effects brilliantly captures the world of pharmaceuticals to great detail, but that is only the surface commentary of the film, because at a much deeper level Soderbergh seems intent on considering how we use drugs, and the chemical deception they provide to mask our delusional view of the world around us, as well as an excuse to actually go of the deep end when it proves advantageous. To the world of Side Effects, drugs are a secondary problem to the general acceptance of lying for sanity's sake.
Key Scene: Soderbergh goes Hitchcock via a Psycho style scene and boy was it intense to watch on the big screen.
This is a great film and considering that it could be his last theatrical release, I feel as though you owe it to yourself and the great auteur to seek it out at your local cinema.