Throughout his prolific career, Steven Soderbergh has been a master of switching genres. He was an indie god in the early 1990s, a prestige director at the turn of the millennium and a big-ticket guy in recent years.
Not every film’s been great, but some have been tremendous, such as Sex, Lies, and Videotape and Traffic. He’s helped turn good-looking guys like George Clooney and Channing Tatum into respectable actors, with movies like Out of Sight and Magic Mike, and helped Julia Roberts earn an Oscar for Erin Brockovich (though he was nominated for Best Director, he won the award that year for Traffic).
And now, apparently, he’s hanging up his filmmaking spurs, forgoing movies for other ventures. His Liberace biopic comes to HBO later this year, but his latest picture, Side Effects, arrives in theaters on Friday, Feb. 8, and will reportedly be his last theatrical film.
If true, he’s going out on top with this taut thriller, which has been spoken of as Hitchcockian, because it has so many twists and turns and, more importantly, because it’s masterfully crafted. Soderbergh is aided by Scott Z. Burns, who penned the director’s previous films The Informant! and Contagion but who’s bested both of those with this screenplay, which keeps you wondering about the nature of the film’s characters without leaving any plot holes or loose ends to tie up.
In the opening moments, we know that something bad has gone down. There’s blood and bloody footprints, but learning the who and the what will have to wait. Flash back three months, where we find Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) seeing her husband Martin (Tatum) released from prison after a four-year stretch. Martin’s crime was white-collar, and when the feds took him down, Emily lost her house, cars, boat and lifestyle, and she’s been suffering silently in a New York walk-up, waiting for her man.
Time has taken a toll, and Martin’s release brings the return of the crippling depression she’s battled in the past. After one particularly disturbing incident, she begins seeing Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), who starts prescribing anti-depressants, which twist Emily to the breaking point. Simply put—and I’m desperately trying to keep this spoiler-free—things do not get better; they get much, much worse, and the characters are forced to consider whether the fault lies with the person, the prescription, or the prescriber.
That’s most certainly not all, but to say much more would be to say too much. Side Effects is a terrifically well-considered movie, and Soderbergh, who handles his own cinematography—giving the movie an off-kilter, angled feel—seems to have considered everything. The movie has a sweet, slow burn, and he coaxes excellent performances from his cast—this is the best work Law’s done in years. If you were wondering if Mara is for real—after all, she was great, but barely in, The Social Network and totally unrecognizable in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo—rest assured that she is. Hers is a multifaceted performance, intense, thrilling and disturbing.
Soderbergh’s legacy will be an interesting one. I’ve felt his work has been spotty in the last decade, but when I look at his canon, I find it extraordinary. It may be that he’s made too many movies recently to really have perspective—Side Effects marks the eighth film of his I’ve seen in the last five years, and I haven’t seen everything he’s made during that period. I think, ultimately, he’ll be regarded as a master, though a perplexing one, because his efforts to explore new kinds of movies weren’t always successful.
Side Effects, however, is one of his best in years, the kind of film that almost any director would like to be remembered for.
Write to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com. You can follow Anders on Twitter at @anderswright.