Looking back at my various reviews of Steven Soderbergh’s past films, I find myself constantly drawn to the same kind of caveat, even when I’m being generally positive. On Contagion; “The problem – although it doesn’t feel like a big one while you’re watching it – is that, not for the first time with Soderbergh, you miss the wildness and revelation that characterizes art rather than instruction.” On Magic Mike: “I’m sure Soderbergh likes the (film-making) process well enough, but his work never communicates the sheer grand/kooky relish of (say) Paul Anderson’s There Will Be Blood.” His new film Side Effects generated similar musings from others – such as Scott Macdonald on the Toronto Standard website; “Watching it, I had no idea why Soderbergh had made it—he seems to have no feelings about the material, or about the people onscreen. But then, has he ever? For an anointed auteur, Soderbergh is strangely passionless. He may dig the medium of movies—you get that sense from the interviews he does and from his DVD commentaries—but his approach to making them hasn't progressed beyond workmanlike. He seems to know everything about how to make a film, nothing about why.”
The problem is potentially confounded on Side Effects by what strikes many observers as an unconvincing series of narrative developments, perhaps inexplicable except as an illustration of Soderbergh’s underlying cluelessness. Here’s Macdonald again: “If (Soderbergh had) cared more about the material, he’d presumably have realized what a letdown the film’s latter half is, and maybe even encouraged (his screenwriter) to rethink it. In a way, it’s he who’s the zombie, not the (Rooney) Mara character. He wanders from film to film, going through the motions, unaware his heart no longer beats.” Since Soderbergh claims Side Effects will be his last film, at least for a long while, you might even see the film’s spectacular meltdown – if such it is – as a deliberate flourish of self-destruction: the zombie finally regains some flicker of self-awareness, and to cut off his agony, throws himself into a furnace from which there’s no return.
On this occasion though, I find myself in the pro-Soderbergh camp: Side Effects isn’t perhaps the most major of works in the scheme of things, but it seems to me entirely coherent, and one of his most quietly sustained social analyses. Rooney Mara plays a young New York woman, whose husband is released from prison after serving four years for insider trading. While he tries to get something new going, her behaviour starts becoming erratic, including driving her car into a wall for no apparent reason. This brings her into the orbit of a psychiatrist (Jude Law), who prescribes a series of pharmaceuticals, initially with mixed results, and then seemingly triggering a horrible consequence; the psychiatrist’s attempts to understand this event, and to redeem the consequences for his own life, drive the film’s second half.
Magic Mike, behind its flashy trappings, demonstrated an unusual specificity (by Hollywood standards anyway) about money, and Side Effects continues this interest, first by focusing on the husband, and then on the psychiatrist – stretched by the demands of an out-of—work wife, a new home, and a stepson in private school, all of which might contribute to emphasizing client satisfaction over clear-sighted medical analysis. He also signs up as a consultant to a large pharmaceutical company in a drug trial, which pays him another $50,000, and S0derbergh deftly evokes the interplay between the corporations and the practitioners, where it’s in everyone’s interest to keep product lines stuffed and flowing, and assessments of ultimate benefit become hopelessly murky – especially for broadly defined conditions like depression or anxiety, where the maladies might be as much social, or definitional, as medical (if the distinction even makes sense). As Soderbergh put it in an interview: “If you've got a company that's based on the premise of getting a lot of people to take a pill, I would think you'd spend a lot of time trying to convince people that there's a problem that will be solved by this pill.”
It seems to me that Side Effects’ later narrative evolution works as the logically chilling extension of this diagnosis. In an environment lacking any clear ethics or broadly accepted standards, and where the financial motivations and pressures are cranked up to an untenable level, we can only expect breakdown – of family structures, of traditional duties of care, of how things are meant to work. The film’s ultimate “reveal” isn’t just another tacked-on twist – it’s the laying out of a misdeed having its roots in multiple intertwining transgressions, all of them arising from the distorted expectations and relationships it explores earlier on. And whereas in a more conventional thriller, we might discover the truth at the point of a gun or a knife, there’s no ramped-up melodrama here, no exultation as the good and bad guys are separated out. The ending presents a reestablished family unit on one side, and then a final image of incarceration on the other, but with little sense that this constitutes any particular return of order, or operation of justice. Having charted the desolation of the landscape, Soderbergh doesn’t pretend there’s any magical way out of it.
There’s a displaced quality to Side Effects which supports the film’s unforced eeriness. Mara has a recessive, ethereal quality that’s hard to get a hold of; as her husband, Soderbergh casts the movie’s most conventionally charismatic actor, Channing Tatum, and then withholds him almost entirely from the foreground. The other two main characters, both psychiatrists, are played by British actors, Law and Catherine Zeta-Jones, both very restrained and low-key, extending the sense of something missing at the centre. Law’s character talks in one scene about how he came to America from Britain because it allowed him to interact with patients as part of a collaborative problem-solving process rather than one of just treating an illness, suggesting the broader untruths in the American dream and its global call.
After all, the movie’s analysis could apply to any number of institutional subjects: the corrupting impact of money in politics; the erosion of education, take your pick. As I said, I don’t know if I’d categorize Side Effects as a major picture – for all its points of interest, you can only enthuse about it so much. But it seems to me one of Soderbergh’s more lasting films, not least because the earlier caveats I mentioned – about his lack of wildness and revelation, or of kooky relish, or of passion – largely become the point here. It’s a film about all our malaises, real or imagined, created or imposed, and how they position us to be played for suckers, whether by the structures we should trust or by the people who claim to love us. If he really is going to stop after this, the film communicates pretty well why his heart’s not in it anymore.