Stephen Soderbergh has been contemplating early retirement for a few years and now, according to him, Side Effects will be his final theatrical release, at least for the time being. He has a film that will air on HBO later this year, and then after that, he’s moving on to the next phase of his life. If Side Effects does indeed go down as his swan song, the director goes out on a high and striking note.
Tapping into his inner Hitchcock and Polanski, Side Effects is Soderbergh’s version of a creepy psychological thriller. It starts out as a vicious, almost PSA-esque attack on the dangers of pharmaceuticals, before morphing into something completely different 45 minutes later. Our society has become far too overly dependent on trying to prescribe its way out of problems, and Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns take that concept to its extreme conclusion in unexpected ways.
Needless to say, there are plot twists aplenty, which are quite effective at keeping you on your heels, so go in as cold as possible. At some point, a certain level of disbelief becomes required by necessity, as is often the case with stories of this nature, but the groundwork laid is strong enough to fall back onto without much of a hiccup.
A good deal of that is due to the brilliant casting of Rooney Mara, who previously was the opening scene-stealer in The Social Network and underwent the impressive transformation as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. She does another 180 here, suffering under an intense depression cloud with deeper demons bubbling beneath the surface. Mara has established herself as one of the most talented young actresses of her generation, and it’s obvious to anyone paying attention she’s going to have a very long and prosperous career.
Jude Law is the other main piece of the puzzle and responds with some of the best work he’s done in a while. He’s able to adeptly play both sides of the aisle, as his character seems to be a good guy at times and a bad one at others. That gray becomes key when his life and career quickly unravel and he starts to lose it himself. The supporting cast of Channing Tatum and Catherine Zeta Jones, among others, all contribute important, and memorable, aspects to the story.
Side Effects is a definite step up from Soderbergh’s previous two outings, Haywire and Magic Mike, both of which left plenty to be desired, and joins Contagion as his best work since the early 2000s. It’s masterfully shot and put together, clearly demonstrating a talent still at the top of his game with a lot left in the tank.
There stands a good chance he will get the itch to direct again and be back in the chair in a few years, but you never know. This could very well be it. Anything is possible, as Side Effects makes abundantly clear. If he is done, as disappointing as that may be, his 25-year, one-of-a-kind career won’t soon be forgotten.