Each week in The Moviegoer, Nick Olson examines new and upcoming films.
Set with great effect to a memorably haunting Thomas Newman score, Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects begins as a puzzle to be pieced together by giving the viewer a flash-forward glimpse of an apartment floor spoiled with fresh blood. The film is framed so as to leave the viewer with a foreboding sense of impending violence. After sufficiently provoking us with the question of what is going to unfold to cause this violent scene, Soderbergh then takes us back “three months earlier,” and the first shot we get is of Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) in her car’s rear-view mirror, adorning herself with bright red lipstick. You might say she’s prepping for a role.
Emily is visiting her husband, Martin (Channing Tatum), who is nearing the end of a prison sentence for insider trading. Upon her husband’s release, though, Emily begins showing troubling signs of depression, culminating in a suicide attempt in which she smashes her car into a parking garage wall. Assigned to psychiatrist Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), Emily agrees to visit the therapist regularly in exchange for release from the hospital. Several anti-depressants fail to help her, so eventually Dr. Banks phones her previous psychiatrist, Victoria (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who suggests for Emily the drug, Ablixa. The drug seems to “work” for Emily insofar as it alters her mood, except that she is given to strange instances of sleepwalking. Eventually, one such instance takes a violent turn. And, at first, it seems as if Soderbergh is crafting a pharmaceutical thriller centered on the ethics of therapy culture. Yet, even as we’re drawn in at key moments by delightfully composed shots of, say, prescription pill containers, there’s also a growing, underlying sense that there’s more to the story–that perhaps we are being played.
In one sense, Soderbergh is difficult to describe as an auteur. By that I mean: his filmography as a whole seems to elude any neat summation, at least in terms of narrow thematic interests. His latest–and, supposedly, his final–theatrical release is something like a microcosm of this elusive tendency that characterizes his oeuvre. The narrative transitions here are sharp, inducing whiplash on the unsuspecting viewer dialed in for a pharmaceutical thriller. My notes on the film begin in earnest over the dazzling opening 30 minutes, pick up with interest in parallels between this film and Contagion, and then end abruptly about 2/3 of the way through. And, yet, there are certain formal approaches that seem quintessential to the Soderbergh experience. Namely, he’s going to take you through the steps of his narrative in a kind of precise, mathematical way, even if the equation is come to irregularly.
Soderbergh describes his approach as, in a sense, mathematical in a recent interview with Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, and Vishnevetsky does well to identify a few recurring Soderberghian interests that, in my opinion, enable a kind of quantified space for his craft: therapeutic psychiatry, economic/market forces, and the secret plans of con-men/con-women–all of which, notably, are in play here. But these sort of contexts not only give a distinct narrative shape; they also provide the impetus for narrative conflict–a playful space for missing, manipulated, and/or generally disorienting narrative variables. That is, we can become unaware of the side effects of antidepressants, or that the reason we’re prescribed a particular pill has unseen economic implications, or that we are being conned. This allows Soderbergh the ability to deceive us, but in such a way that we’re invested in the baseline way of seeing the math add up.
What’s interesting about this, Soderbergh’s last theatrical effort, is the recurring theme of hopelessness. Dr. Banks tells Emily that hopelessness is a symptom of depression, for depression is the inability to construct a future. Yet, the turn that the latter half of the film takes might be construed this way: in our hopelessness, we sometimes construct an unhealthy future, one fraught with ugly side effects for both ourselves and other people. It would be a mistake, though, to say that this film is ultimately concerned with characters or particular ethically interesting themes. More than anything, Side Effects seems to me one last formal exercise for Soderbergh, a director operating at a high level in his craft. He’s less interested in the story itself or its players, than in the ways in which he can invoke us to come along with him as he frames the story in his own interesting way, or as he allows certain story-shaping contexts to take his story in different directions and form it in different shapes (Richard Brody, for instance, says that Side Effects is “a story about the very production of stories”). As such, this isn’t all that different from Haywire in that it’s a scintillating genre exercise with certain meta implications to unpack.
I just hope that Soderbergh decides to construct a future in which he returns to tell a story the content of which gives me the impression he’s as interested in it as his craft. That’s when the math really adds up. Otherwise, you start to get an unpleasant sense that you’ve been had by a con artist.