Soderbergh’s latest turns film conventions inside out
Whether or not it’s Steven Soderbergh’s final theatrical feature, Side Effects may be his most quintessential work, the one best suited for explaining his ethos to a beginner. The title Side Effects, in fact, would be a fitting one for a career that has largely dealt in the unseen and unintended consequences of institutions. He makes anti-genre pieces that don’t demolish their conventions so much as they turn them inside out.
The plot is a work of structural gamesmanship that recalls Hitchcock at the peak of his powers, so I’d be loath to reveal too much of it. This much is safe: after four years in prison for insider trading, formerly wealthy Martin Taylor (Channing Tatum) is released from prison and rejoins his wife Emily (Rooney Mara), who is now the modest breadwinner for the couple. But Emily shows signs of depression, and after she smashes her car into a brick wall, she is introduced to psychiatrist Jonathan Banks (Jude Law). He introduces Emily to an experimental drug called Ablixa, which introduces unforeseen side effects.
The plot henceforth gets all twisty-turny, and as fun as that plot is, Side Effects isn’t really about that plot; it’s about the motives and ethics of the people inside of it. Take the film’s courtroom scene for instance: there is a shot that frames the back of a witness’s head in the lower right, and the jury is stretched across the frame. Conventionally, we would be encouraged to study the jury’s faces in order to predict their decision, but Soderbergh keeps them well out of focus; the only sharply defined thing in frame is the back of that head.
Backs of heads — and, in Mara’s case, the side of a hair-obscured face — figure often in Side Effects. They put the veil of skull and scalp between us and the thoughts of the person inside. If the second half of the film tends to upend any empathy or identification we feel for these characters, that’s part of its point: we assume too much and too simply to really comprehend.In this sense it is above all else an anti-character study, one willing to displace our expectations of each character. Indeed, the film’s success lies mostly in the hands of its formalism, and Soderbergh’s camera direction has never been so up to that task: his camera’s clinicism reveals double meanings almost shot for shot. He seems to have mastered his digital kingdom, resulting in his single best-looking, most laser-accurate film (shot and cut by Soderbergh himself under his usual pseudonyms).
Scott Z. Burns’s script is right there to match the director’s chameleonic abilities, shifting and subverting Hollywood genres and storytelling at every turn, and the cast goes all the way with their Haneke-esque performances. Law and Mara at once restrain their inner lives from the screen and leave several equally plausible characterizations on the table. We choose between them at our leisure, and then Soderbergh shows us that our assumptions may have side effects.