More Than Meets The Label
It seems fitting that Side Effects, Steven Soderbergh’s last feature film (he’s moving on to other facets of his life), comes out amidst the current pain, debate, and discourse surrounding drugs, specifically performance enhancing ones. Not to say this film is about or related to sports in any way, but beneath the dramaturgical narrative lies a pervasive discussion on psychological health and the subsequent prescription regiment so many people live off, or maybe more appropriately, suffer from.
It’s a topic that incorporates more than just one perspective and other grandiose themes that Soderbergh has always attempted to dissect. What are the ethical boundaries of corporate pharmaceutical companies? Who takes the blame when a patient goes wrong? That’s one of the points of analysis here in a plot that jumps and jolts in its storytelling as well as in its visual style. As many may note, Hitchcockian camera movements make their presence felt, in slow tracking shots and contextual zoom outs. Soderbergh has no problem finding a mood and playing with it.
But this is a tough movie to explain because diving into the plot would ruin the film’s intended psychological hold on its audience. That’s part of the genius and sometimes letdown of a film like this, predicated on twists that intrigue and then cause retrospective questioning and assurance. Yet Side Effects never completely pulls out the carpet from beneath, which in many ways is a testament to the state of pharmaceutical endeavors playing tricks on the mind, and consistently leaving us skeptical when we should be confident. Revelations come, but their impact doesn’t leave a gorge of incomprehensibility to climb out from. You fall, you go with the flow, and let two currents tear at your conscience.
Those currents in character form are Emily, played by Rooney Mara who adds guised, muted facial layers to her Dragon Tattoo role, and Doctor Jonathon Banks (Jude Law). The two collide after Emily has ostensibly committed suicide in her car, an emotional wreck as her husband Martin (Channing Tatum, a Soderbergh favorite now) returns home. He’s back from jail after four years for insider trading, four years that have changed Emily from her life of picnic champagne Connecticut luxury to her office job in small apartment Manhattan.
His arrival is welcome but unduly troublesome. She is suffering from depression and is more than willing to find help, especially after an embarrassing boating party meltdown. Her assigned therapist Dr. Banks prescribes her some pills at first, anti-depressants like Zoloft and a few other name brands. He contacts her former therapist played by Catherine Zeta-Jones, who suggests a different brand Ablixa for her aid. It is what I imagine many doctors do, sharing information, postulating prescriptions, and convincing their counterparts on medical opinions. But here it feels wrong, sleezy and glib, and it feels that way probably because we never see or hear it in the first place.
The omniscience factor however is something Soderbergh has continued searching for and questioning. In a casino robbery we see every necessary component that builds to the payoff (or pay out) in his Ocean films. In Contagion, the pandemic that spreads affects the everyman, the corporate suits, the fear-inducing blogger, the scientists, and all the moral ambiguities in between. So while this film’s finish may be unpredictable, its clearer delineations can feel dissatisfying only because we have witnessed people pushed to their ethical boundaries and experienced their punishing consequences. Life in Soderbergh films is all shades of gray.
Which is why the film’s chief dilemma, centered on Dr. Banks, in certain senses has no culpability attached, and is just the bi-product of bad fortune and an indentured, flawed, pharmacological protocol. Banks, in the middle of aiding his patients, agrees to lead some trials for a new drug- meaning more hours, more stress, but more money for his family (his wife played by Vinessa Shaw). But all of those factors will in some way make their presence known, and Law, in his straightened suit, begins to flex uncomfortably and dynamically as he takes personal and public jabs amidst Emily’s provoking visits. In this middle exposé, trust becomes the power play in a backdrop filled with false claims and honest mistakes.
Soderbergh, who is also his own cinematographer, has in all of his films evoked a strong sense of feeling. The harsh, saturated yellow lighting, the intensely framed close-ups, the hauntingly detailed shots (most specifically in Contagion, with unsettling awareness of germs spreading). He is, similar to David Fincher, an artful auteur, effectively weaving a story without blatant artistic statements shoved in the audience’s face. Instead they provide a level of intimacy, familiarity with technique that doesn’t overshadow the content it forms.
That’s partly because we are in constant search to figure out Emily’s condition throughout the mental game she plays. She’s the object of affection and sympathy but Soderbergh gives us a lesson in our heart’s allegiance. His characters, most often penned by Scott Z. Burns like this one, are rarely the one-dimensional protagonists we often see produced, especially in this wearisome winter season. We may think an ending is cut and dry, but that would be the antithesis of his storytelling vision. And that I think, for now, is a perfect metaphor to his “end” of filmmaking.