Much has been made of Steven Soderbergh’s announced intention to retire from film directing–at least for the big screen–now that he’s completed and released Side Effects. There’s a certain wistfulness to all the discussion surrounding the film, and assessments have been couched almost uniformly in observations meant to somehow summarize his nearly twenty-five year career. Funny thing is, Soderbergh has seemingly made a concerted effort to push back against this sort of elegiacal commentary through the projects he’s chosen. There’s been no return to the murmured, twisty relationships of his debut, sex, lies, and videotape, nor an attempt to get the Ocean gang back together to commemorate his biggest box office hit. Similarly, there hasn’t been a lot of material that could be reasonably construed as Soderbergh’s artistic rumination on his withdrawal. Instead, he has wholeheartedly embraced stories that are, on the surface, thoroughly trashy. Before Side Effects, his last three films have been a drama about a worldwide epidemic that recalled nineteen-seventies disaster flicks, an unapologetic action outing and, best of all, a male stripper movie. It seems that none of these was forced on him by a studio as means to get to a more erudite, intellectually honorable project, but were instead exactly the movies he wanted to make. From my perspective, the Best Director Oscar on his shelf has never looked shinier.
Side Effects is right in line with the prior output, delving into a lurid tale that exploits the modern trend of a heavily medicated society without really offering all that much commentary on it. Working from a screenplay by his Contagion and The Informant! collaborator, Scott Z. Burns, Soderbergh brings characteristic understatement and exactitude to a story that, aside from some more current trappings, feels like it belongs in the stretch of the early nineties, when the success of The Silence of the Lambs led to a bounty of psychological thrillers like Final Analysis and Whispers in the Dark. In the film, Rooney Mara plays Emily, a young woman whose husband (recent Soderbergh stalwart Channing Tatum) is getting released from prison after serving a few years for insider trading. Emily begins exhibiting symptoms of depression, which her husband finds familiar, culminating in an apparent suicide attempt in a parking garage. That brings her under the care of psychiatrist Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), who treats her in part with a fairly new pharmaceutical. From there, things start to get really problematic for all involved.
The less said about the remaining plot the better, but its worth noting that Soderbergh has great fun with a simple truism about madness and obsession: the more someone protests that they’re sane and lucid, the crazier they seem. Mara, in her first major role since that famous dragon tattoo was etched onto her, is terrific, quietly committed to the intensity of the part and shrewdly playing the character with a coiled in reticence that heightens the mystery. Law is also very good, effectively shaping his character’s subtle shifts from desperation to determination. And as has long been the case with Soderbergh, there is special attention paid to giving the character actors room to make an impression, notably Polly Draper and Vinessa Shaw, who both get a lot out of relatively small roles.
Side Effects may lack the trappings of a prestige project, but that doesn’t mean that Soderbergh panders or condescends. Instead, he does all that can be asked of him: he gives it everything he’s got. If the ambitions of the film are modest, that doesn’t necessarily apply to Soderbergh’s own intent. He clearly wants to make the best movie he can, one he can be proud of, one that speaks up to the presumed intelligence of his audience. It’s certainly not perfect–all the tangles of the plot morph into a clumsy snarl by the end–but it exhibits a honorable commitment to an approach to American cinema that sometimes seems irretrievably lost: the sense that anything can be made into a exceptional movie if its consistently formulated with evenhanded artistic integrity. If Soderbergh exits the soundstage as one of the last practitioners who deeply believed that, at least he leaves with a filmography overstuffed with evidence that proves the soundness of the theory.