Steven Soderbergh has cemented his reputation as one of the most versatile directors working today, assuredly crafting big-budget capers like Ocean’s Eleven between smaller, more innovative projects like last year’s sleeper hit Magic Mike, and occasionally blurring the line, as with Erin Brockovich. The bad news is, he won’t be returning to work in the movie business after the release of Side Effects (released Friday 8 March), a lo-fi, high-impact thriller starring Jude Law.
If this really is his cinematic swansong, Soderbergh isn’t making too much of a fuss about it. He opts for digital video (his preferred medium of late), which enables him to get extremely up-close and personal with the enigmatic Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), playing the clinically depressed Emily. Her loving husband Martin (that’s Magic Mike star Channing Tatum, with his keks on) has just been released from prison after serving time for insider trading on Wall Street and the future looks bright. Emily should be delighted and yet she’s miserable.
Jude Law is the psychiatrist, Dr Jonathan Banks, who puts Emily on a course of new-fangled happy pills to quell the impulse that sends her driving into a wall at high speed. It seems to work, only too well, because poor Martin struggles to keep up – in more ways than one. Emily claims that this new, Duracell Bunny version of her is “the real Emily”, but there’s a lingering doubt, thickening the air of mystery as well as referencing a modern, middle-class obsession with happiness; where the pursuit of it goes beyond material wealth to something indefinable, breeding yet more anxiety.
Banks, by comparison, exists in a state of total complacency – that is until Emily commits a murder, apparently while under the influence of the wonder drug he prescribed for her. The men in white coats take her away and Banks’s professional judgment is called into question, putting the brakes on his career and a strain on his marriage. Law gives a great study in frantic self-absorption, struggling to rationalise what has happened so that it begins to seem like he’s just too arrogant to spot his own mistake. There’s an echo, too, of recent outcries over antidepressants and their possible links with violent behaviour that have cast a pall over the psychiatric profession.
At the same time as he ramps up the tension, Soderbergh is pulling apart the belief structure that says, ‘doctor knows best’. Banks isn’t too proud to take advice, though. Catherine Zeta Jones holds her nose a little higher in the air as Dr Siebert, the psychiatrist who treated Emily before Banks and who advises him on the latest medications. Naturally, she’s less obliging after the scandal blows up into a media panic and, during the trial, Banks only has Emily to talk to, to try and understand the patterns of behaviour that led her to kill and to figure out how much blood is on his own hands.
For the most part Soderbergh delivers seamless filmmaking in the Hitchcockian mould – twisting, taut and suspenseful – with the added depth of a social commentary. And then it gets a bit silly. Dr Freud himself might have raised an eyebrow at the psychosexual switcheroo the director pulls at the last minute in a gauche attempt to resolve what has been, up until this point, a complex web of intrigue. Of course, the man whose career was launched with Sex, Lies and Videotape may have been tempted to think that all the elements were in place for a doozy of an ending, but instead it feels reckless.
However, it’s the mark of a great filmmaker that this lopsided thriller is still a cut above the average, skillfully drawing you in for that sucker punch. We can only hope that Soderbergh isn’t so rash when it comes to deciding on how to end his film career.
Side Effects is released in UK cinemas on Friday 8 March