Whether it truly is his directorial swan song or just the start of a brief ‘joy of painting’ sabbatical, Side Effects is the last feature film we’ll see for a while from director Steven Soderbergh. And, frankly, he couldn’t ask for much of a better curtain call.
What starts as a somber and captivating tale of one woman’s battle with depression becomes a twisty psychological thriller that rivals anything in the genre over the past several years. It further cements Soderbergh’s status as one of America’s pre-eminent filmmakers, reminding us once again how incredibly versatile and talented he is. This is a man who honestly and intensely loves what he does. And he’s really good at it.
The story begins with Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) welcoming her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) home from jail, where he’s spent the past five years for insider trading. During that time, though, she’s become a mess, battling depression and anxiety– conditions that are highlighted even more by Mara’s frail, almost emaciated appearance.
Shortly after Martin’s return she attempts suicide. In the hospital she first meets Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), a psychiatrist who begins treating her for depression.
And, frankly, that’s all that can be said without risking the revelation of several plot twists and turns.
Side Effects makes you feel like you’re standing at the epicenter of an earthquake, and just when you think you’ve found your footing, the ground drops out from below you again and again. It’s an intense, creepy, mesmerizing bit of storytelling from Scott Z. Burns (Contagion), and it’s made all the more gripping by Soderbergh’s finesse. Once again serving as his own cinematographer and editor (under pseudonyms), he crafts a beautiful film, spending as much time on seemingly innocuous details, quirky camera angles, and his trademark blue-and-yellow palette as he does with the story itself.
Mara, who proved her immense worth in the U.S. version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is at it again, offering up a performance that is as powerful as it is delicately nuanced. This is her show and she runs away with it, making rock-solid turns from Tatum, Law, and Catherine Zeta-Jones (as Emily’s previous therapist) seem almost like an afterthought.
The only caveat is that some of the third act revelations do begin to strain credulity, and the ending (no spoilers) will split the audience– but there’s no doubting that Side Effects is the first, true, must-see film of the year… and that Soderbergh’s ‘retirement’ is leaving a gaping hole in the American cinematic landscape.