Article by Ryan Wilson

Steven Soderbergh’s new thriller Side Effects deserves credit for so effectively switching gears halfway through that the movie really contains two tales, each based on how we perceive the protagonist. The best comparison here would be the greatest psychological thriller of them all, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, where we spend the first half of the film trusting Jimmy Stewart’s retired detective and the second half watching in fascination at how that trust deteriorates into the character’s obsessive compulsion. This isn’t the exact formula for Side Effects, but the film does toy with our perceptions in similar ways.   

The first half of the film is an excruciating character study about depression and the casual overuse of pharmaceuticals in our lives. The second is a grifter’s tale about the vulnerability found in the mental health system. To reveal any other story details would spoil Side Effects for audiences, but know that both directions are engrossing tales with expert performances.

Rooney Mara, best known as The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo, stars as a mousy wife to Channing Tatum’s insider trading white-collar criminal. Upon his release from minimum security, Mara’s character tailspins into a depression so severe that she begins sessions with a therapist, played by Jude Law, who keeps changing her medication for the best effect. Mara is pitch perfect, especially early in the film. Watching her suffer, one can’t help but think that a more effective cure for her character might simply be multiple piercings and some hardcore nihilism.

But as good as Mara is, the real star here is director Soderbergh. Like Hitchcock, he knows that we interpret drama though editing, not acting. Mara’s performance is less about her vacant expression than it is about that image of her juxtaposed with other images, say of her walking the streets of New York looking like an overly-medicated zombie. Soderbergh, again like Hitchcock’s Vertigo, returns to the same moment, reinterpreting it in new contexts. The entire film functions almost like that old film experiment where a subject’s blank expression gets juxtaposed with two different images. Cut to a meal, and we interpret the subject as hungry. Cut to a coffin, and we interpret the subject as grieving. In short, the director creates meaning for us between the edits.

Soderbergh has long used this technique to change our view of his characters, beginning way back in his first breakthrough feature Sex, Lies, and Videotape, where the worldview of James Spader’s video fetishist becomes more acceptable the more he’s contrasted with the materialistic world surrounding him. Matt Damon’s whistleblower in Soderbergh’s The Informant moves in the opposite direction; the more we see him shot in contrast with a logical environment, the more absurd he becomes to us.

For this technique alone, Soderbergh can be seen as a rather clinical, distanced filmmaker, much like Stanley Kubrick and the aforementioned Hitchcock. Like them, he’s an expert at making much out of little, a master of drama in the small space like an office building or a lawyer’s office. This explains his past successes like Erin Brockovich and his recent successes like Contagion.          

Soderbergh has always been an experimental filmmaker trapped in the Hollywood system. And so he’s directed hip crowd-pleasers like the Ocean’s Eleven films to finance his own pet projects such as the esoteric Full Frontal and large bio-pics like Che and Kakfa. Side Effects is rumored to be his final feature him. This would be a shame, as well as the end of an era. After all, Sex, Lies, and Videotape is often cited as the little film that launched the independent film movement of the 1990s, making the Hollywood system acutely aware of independent film. We might as well go ahead and credit many of the smaller films nominated at next week’s academy awards to Soderbergh’s influence.

To me, Soderbergh’s masterpiece is Traffic, a technical marvel that looks at the drug war from all angles. If Side Effects is to be his last film, then Soderbergh has, at the very least, returned in the end to make another statement about drug use in our culture. But more, he’s ended with a stylish, smart film that transcends its content and keeps us guessing. It’s the perfect ending to a career that mixed popular storytelling with an innovative, autonomous style.   

Take 5 on Film is a production of Delta College Quality Public Radio.

© Ryan Wilson, 2013