Allegedly, Side Effects is director Steven Soderbergh's final feature film before retiring to devote himself to other pursuits (if you exclude the HBO film Behind the Candelabra, due to receive a theatrical release outside the USA). If this is indeed his farewell to the big screen, it's a good measure of what we're losing: one of the few contemporary American filmmakers who has a clear idea of what it is he wants to do, how to do it and how to retain full creative control while doing it. Far too many people have dismissed Mr. Soderbergh's protean, always-on creativity and deliberate genre- and style-hopping as a stunt to disguise a mere hack of a director-for-hire, but if the word "hack" is to be attributed to him, then it should be inscribed alongside the great "hack auteurs" of American cinema that coloured studio filmmaking from the "golden age" of the 1930s to the last gasp of the 1970s (and many of the director's films do have an aura of 1970s gleeful try-anything-once adventure).

     Mr. Soderbergh has always made a point of using each new film as a step in an artistic rather than careerist ladder, adapting his style to the substance of the project but also building on the experience, trials and errors from previous works. For this twisty, twisted thriller set in the world of modern pharmaceuticals, written by regular collaborator Scott Burns (The Informant!, Contagion), he again explores the disconnect between image and identity that underscored Magic Mike while extending the sense of society as a mere commodity exchange explored in The Girlfriend Experience, within the context of a genre exercise like Contagion or Haywire - no wonder A. O. Scott in the New York Times called Side Effects a sort of "greatest hits package", though the new film is rather more than the just the sum of its constituent parts.

     In this case, the genre Mr. Soderbergh explores, deconstructs and rebuilds is the old-fashioned thriller where nothing is what it seems, presenting itself as an apparent indictment of "better living through chemistry" as advertised breathlessly by the big pharmaceutical companies and prescribed mindlessly by doctors with an eye to their bank accounts. But that is before it switches into a Hitchcockian murder mystery with elements of film noir and conspiracy thriller leaning towards American Gothic, as up-and-coming New York psychiatrist Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) finds himself in trouble after prescribing a brand-new antidepressant to Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara), a depressed housewife whose husband is about to be released from prison after serving for insider trading.

     True, it may not be much a stretch for a director so attuned to his material as Mr. Soderbergh - and there is a sense that Side Effects is something that he could do pretty much in his sleep, which is not to say he did do so. But everything, from the performances to the greyish, filtered mood of the visuals is so perfectly judged and expertly paced (the director serves once again as his own cinematographer and editor, under his usual aliases of "Peter Andrews" and "Mary Ann Bernard") that it confirms that few, if any, other current Hollywood filmmakers could be in such complete control of tone and material. Even more remarkably, Side Effects is the type of movie any of the major studios would rush to produce (and did back) as recently as 25 years ago but that these days needs independent financing just to be looked at. Therein may lie one of the reasons why Mr. Soderbergh is retiring, and one can't really blame him - but it's one more reason to regret that he will be retiring.

Cast: Jude Law, Rooney Mara, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Channing Tatum
Director, cinematographer and editor: Steven Soderbergh (colour)
Screenplay: Scott Z. Burns
Music: Thomas Newman
Designer: Howard Cummings
Costumes: Susan Lyall
Producers: Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Gregory Jacobs, Mr. Burns (Endgame Entertainment and Di Bonaventura Pictures in association with Filmnation Entertainment)
USA, 2013, 106 minutes

Screened: Berlinale 2013 official competition press screening, Berlinale Palast, February 11th 2013


Dan O. said…
Although some of its twists and character relationships could be developed more clearly, the movie still comes through as a surprisingly engrossing thriller with fantastic turns from the whole cast. Nice review Jorge.

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