Review: Steven Soderbergh’s SIDE EFFECTS

Stephen Soderbergh’s SIDE EFFECTS feels nothing like the work of a director tired and ready to retire. On the contrary, this superb psychological thriller exudes the passion of a young, hungry filmmaker just beginning to hit his stride.

The last decade has been interesting for Soderbergh who, by 2001, had achieved unprecedented success as a director who could simultaneously appeal to both mainstream audiences (OCEAN’S ELEVEN) and Oscar-voters (TRAFFIC). Outside of the two OCEAN’S sequels, Soderbergh subsequently failed to repeat the box office success that validated his reputation as a reliable studio-commodity.

In the past two years, however, Soderbergh released three films suggesting the southern-bred director has rediscovered his connection with the movie-goers.

First came CONTAGION, a star-filled medical disaster-movie that succeeded at the global box office. Then there was HAYWIRE, an action-thriller that didn’t fare as well, but showed that Soderbergh was happy to play within a fan-friendly (i.e. commercial) genre. And then, of course, we got MAGIC MIKE; the box-office behemoth that became a sensation with both critics and audiences.

His latest, SIDE EFFECTS, masterfully combines Soderbergh’s skills both as a crowd-pleaser and a master-storyteller/technician.

He again collaborates with screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (CONTAGION, THE INFORMANT!) who has woven a sex-infused tale of intrigue, madness and deception that will undoubtedly satisfy every type of moviegoer; from hardened cinephiles to casual Times Square date-nighters.

The movie offers so many unexpected plot twists that it’s impossible to delve too deeply into the story without revealing potential spoilers. Thankfully, its marketing materials have successfully kept the movie’s secrets in-tact.

The story’s foundation is built on a young Manhattan couple (Rooney Mara & Channing Tatum) reunited when the husband returns from a white-collar prison stint after an insider-trading conviction. Mara’s Emily begins to show signs of extreme depression and, after a car-accident, she sees a psychiatrist (Jude Law), who prescribes her a popular anti-depressant called Ablixa.

Soderbergh credits adult-oriented 80s thrillers like FATAL ATTRACTION and JAGGED EDGE as direct influences for SIDE EFFECTS. Like those films, SIDE EFFECTS intended for mass-market consumption; but unlike those sexy melodramas, Soderbergh doesn’t jump the shark in terms of outlandish violence or behavior. He maintains sense of reserve and control of a master filmmaker able to create undeniable tension without giving in to the temptation to reveal his entire hand.

That’s not to say SIDE EFFECTS is too cerebral. After all, it was produced by Lorenzo di Bonaventura (THE LAST STAND)! In fact, for all those fans of CONTAGION who famously refer to that film as a “horror movie,” Soderbergh shows his real skills as a master of terror in SIDE EFFECTS, especially in one truly shocking set piece.

If ever there was any doubt about Rooney Mara, she totally extinguishes it here. Had this film been released before December 31, I guarantee you she would be battling with Jessica Chastain, Emmanuelle Riva, et al later this month. While she certainly carries GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, she gives that performance in full costume. Here she is completely stripped down (in one case, literally), without the crutches offered by eccentric accents, haircuts and piercings.

I wanted to highlight one specific scene that I consider to be her “Oscar clip,” when Jude Law’s character injects her with a sedative. Soderbergh frames Mara close-up, looking directly into the camera as her character shuffles in and out of consciousness; her eyes slowly close, only to sporadically widen without noticeā€¦ it’s terrifying.

Jude Law also deserves major recognition; of which he didn’t get enough for his work in ANNA KARENINA, which deserved a Best Supporting Actor nomination. Hopefully he will continue to work with the best filmmakers in the business, as he is definitely one of Hollywood’s most underrated-yet-reliable, seasoned journeymen.

Along with SIDE EFFECTS, Soderbergh already has one more movie in the can: May’s Liberace biopic BEHIND THE CANDELABRA. After that, he says he plans on officially entering retirement. For me, along with countless actors and studio executives, this is sad news. With SIDE EFFECTS, he only intensifies the momentum he has experienced since the run of Hollywood-friendly fare that began with CONTAGION.

Let’s all hope that his retirement is more of an extended hiatus.