“Side Effects” subtly eerie, utterly masterful thriller

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“Directed by Steven Soderbergh”.

Any semi-regular readers of mine know that I have a particular soft spot for films that conclude on this title-card, and alas, if he is to be believed, the new psychological thriller Side Effects is gonna be the last time we’ll see this flash across theater-screens. The most prolific American director since Howard Hawks, with 26 films under his belt in 23 years, is stepping away from cinema in favor of painting, Broadway, and simply, life. He cannot be blamed, and nor can I for my sadness on the matter.

Side Effects is no grand departure from his past work. It is no bold statement. But in its modest scope and delivery, perhaps it’s the most appropriate farewell we could hope for: not reflecting on its own place in its master’s career, but in simply demonstrating much of what makes him an astonishing artist. Which, in this case, are his talents for pure escapist craft. The very indefinable nature of Side Effects is precisely what makes it so interesting, as are its flirtations with many genres and influences.

To reveal the primary influence on Side Effects is to ruin its surprise. In short: Rooney Mara plays a young woman, seemingly elated by her husband’s (Channing Tatum) release from prison for insider trading. But even the brief excitement of his presence can’t mask an overwhelming sense of depression, and she soon makes an attempt on her own life. Two psychiatrists enter the picture (Jude Law & Catherine Zeta-Jones), with conflicting intentions and moral shades. To reveal more is to rob the twisty pleasures of Scott Z. Burns’ script, where motivations, exposition, and even main characters seem to be constantly shifting.

It’s all too easy to appreciate the effortless mastery of which Soderbergh demonstrates over his form: the precise framing and camera movements, muted lighting, subdued use of music, protracted cuts. It’s a style that, if audiences have grown accustomed to it, it’s only because he rarely calls attention to the very nature of the artifice he creates. Thomas Newman provides an exceptional score, one that provides a propulsive thrust to the gradually escalating insanity of Side Effects‘ proceedings.

Rooney Mara’s performance is unquestionably one of the film’s high points. Jumping quickly from stale cash-grabs such as the Nightmare on Elm Street reboot to the utterly incendiary titular role of David Fincher’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Mara’s versatility and professionalism has ensured a quick rise through Hollywood’s ranks. Her work here is utterly shattering, peeling away new depths as a character seemingly with each new scene. Side Effects plays it a little fast-and-loose with character motivations in the early scenes — meaning that while we accept their actions at face value, Soderbergh always seems to be hinting at ulterior motives and alternate interpretations. The cool thing? None of them prove to be correct. What begins as tongue-in-cheek pharmaceutical satire eventually evolves into a courtroom-psychosexual-procedural hybrid. This is a film with many restrained pleasures, but perhaps what I most appreciated about Side Effects is its wild, go-for-broke unpredictability. B+

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