Steven Soderbergh is perhaps one of the most eclectic directors in the mainstream, and part of that is his ability to take on different genres and to provide something fresh each time; a rare talent and a difficult task to achieve. And with Side Effects, potentially his farewell film, he once again raises the bar within the thriller genre with a dramatic and hard-hitting look at the circus of the pharmaceutical industry, the media and a whole lot more.
Whilst it’s by no means a classic, it still attains a status of pretty much the very definition of a four-star film. Though there are better thrillers out there, the very fact that this isn’t simply an out-and-out thriller is partially the factor that sets it apart from so many others. For what Soderbergh does in Side Effects isn’t far away from what Affleck did in Argo and what McDonagh did with In Bruges. The difference here is that it isn’t so much about balancing the tone between different genres (comedy-thriller in Argo, comedy-drama in In Bruges) but accelerating the script into a whole new territory via unexpected directions, much in the same way that Looper shocked (and divided audiences) on first viewing.
Jude Law delivers a very capable performance as the doctor who becomes embroiled in a scandal of sorts because of the unintended – you guessed it – side effects of a fresh but experimental drug. Though Law has recently taken on bit-part roles in the likes of Hugo and Soderbergh’s last big film Contagion, it was through early features such as Gattaca and The Talented Mr. Ripley which displayed his skill and which he more resembles during Side Effects.
Playing the man thrust into a situation without blame (or perhaps there is…) and beyond his control with nods to Hitchcock (from the opening shot onwards) and other black-and-white thrillers, he’s supported primarily by Rooney Mara in this morally-grey twisty-turny tale of social responsibility, media power and corporate greed. As many have pointed out, this does take a swipe at the pharmaceutical industry to an extent, although it veers away from launching a stinging attack in order to focus on other targets too.
Whilst other films would struggle to successfully move between themes and ideas and to balance the various aspects of the film, Side Effects uses Soderbergh’s years of experience to do so effortlessly and excellently. Instead of a seemingly scattergun approach in the output, we see a calculated effort to touch upon many different issues through this complex web of ethics and morality. Even the protagonists, thankfully, aren’t given clear-cut motivations and squeaky-clean identities, resulting in a thoughtful and rich narrative about the justifications of getting ahead in business, in one’s public life and also in one’s personal life.
All of this culminates in something which is, ultimately, a fairly bleak condemnation of the state of society, and this isn’t merely because of the conclusion but also because of the actions and events throughout. This cat-and-mouse thriller is so much more than what it might appear to be on the surface, with relentless references to concepts such as a trial-by-media, of being guilty-by-association, of public perceptions and the knock-on effects that they have, all of which leads to a gripping and enticing rollercoaster of a drama that you can’t help be drawn into.
These philosophical and moral questions that the film throws at its audience throughout is undoubtedly its greatest success, even though the meandering script is also an achievement in itself with the surprising elements it throws up (if becoming a tad farcical at points). There are additionally elements of flawed bureaucracy at play as each character plays to his or her primary and public interest which throws up levels of satire that resonate with influences from The Truman Show to Election.
If Haywire added a layer of physicality to typical action flicks and Contagian tackled the pharmaceutical issues in an entirely different way through visceral storytelling then Side Effects does much the same for the tricky thriller that doesn’t know when to quit. This is via the weighty add-ons of political and ethical issues that enable it to be so much more than a paint-by-numbers conspiracy movie and instead allows Soderberg’s send-off to resonate the audience long after they leave the cinema, much like his career has as a rule.