It’s all too easy to declare Magic Mike as the definitive cut-off point for Steven Soderbergh’s career, focused as it is on the deliberations of a man more or less over his profession of pleasing masses (of women) with serviceable entertainment. That’s not to say Side Effects, Soderbergh’s final cinematic feature – discounting his HBO outing Behind the Candelabra – is any sort of anticlimax to a storied, varied and decorated career. Indeed, the film ends with a pan away from one of the main characters, incarcerated, voicing a problematic assurance that they are exactly where they need to be, removed from the ogling of an inquisitive humankind.
Far less dubious an assurance than this is the widespread critical consensus that Soderbergh’s swansong is as cinematically rich and expertly steered as the best of his work. Precise compositions are supplemented with crystalline imagery courtesy of the Red Epic, a reliable piece of equipment and a clear argument for digital filmmaking. The editing, script and camera movement are all chiefly considered. Make no mistake: this is the output of a man operating in his utmost element.
Side Effects begins by foremost following the ordeal of one Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara), who lapses into a sudden, inexplicable bout of depression coinciding with the release of husband and financial trader Martin (Channing Tatum) from prison. After an unsuccessful suicide attempt, Emily’s doctor Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) takes a keen interest in her plight, and prescribes her with medical drug Ablixa as recommended by her previous psychiatrist, Victoria (Catherine Zeta-Jones). As the title suggests, this medication comes with a number of caveats, and what follows is a spiralling mystery stained with blood and dishonour.
If that all sounds immensely exciting, that’s because it is. However, the thrills are meted out between two abstracted modes of procedure, both enjoyable yet tricky to conciliate. The first third of Side Effects is the most absorbing, with the viewer placed into Emily’s strenuous, confused perspective. Here, the cinematography expresses an uncomfortable, alienating constitution, distinct from, but not unlike, the affliction displayed on behalf of Julianne Moore in Todd Haynes’ Safe. The Red Epic demonstrates its ability with an extreme soft focus that brings characters to into a crisp foreground while smothering out the surrounding environment, reducing the world outside the mind to a hazy, disconnected blur.
But after a substantial length of time in which the viewer ostensibly identifies with the tribulation of a tormented young woman, the abrupt narrative shift that follows serves as a bemusing curveball. When Jonathan comes to the realisation that he may be complicit in Emily’s eventual drug-induced offence, the angle of the film switches far away from behind the shoulders of a distressed female, and slots squarely into the shoes of The Wrong Man.
Thus what began as an ambiguously textured examination of mental illness and the pharmaceutical industry soon strips down and settles into a new groove as a mildly engrossing potboiler mystery. Jude Law’s tireless pacing back and forth, appeals to his beleaguered wife and protests of innocence to his fellow professionals, is not quite as involving as what preceded it.
Nevertheless, Soderbergh has produced a fine albeit flawed final feature that he can be proud to term his curtain call. One of the absolute finest US directors in recent memory now lays down his tools at the close of a profilic journey encompassing more than twenty years. Steven Soderbergh may have gone out with a bright spark as opposed to a full-blown bang, but after a mostly consistent run of genre-hopping, deftly crafted films, the vast majority can agree that his talents will be greatly missed.