Director Steven Soderbergh has decided to call it quits after a nearly 25-year career in filmmaking. After Soderbergh’s emergence as not only a strong independent filmmaker but a perfect Hollywood helmsman, it is truly a shame that his unique, powerful, thrilling brand of filmmaking will no longer be showcased. Which brings us to “Side Effects,” his final feature film—a necessarily specific distinction, seeing as he will be making an HBO movie about Liberace starring Michael Douglas later this year. Still, if “Side Effects” is to be his last feature, it certainly marks a wonderful, absorbing exit from Hollywood, a drama that is never bogged down in genre conventions or storytelling clichés. It’s a film that excites from start to finish, constantly shifting gears in front of the viewers’ eyes.
“Side Effects” is deceptively simple from a plot standpoint, yet Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns, who have worked together on “The Informant!” and “Contagion,” take what could have easily become another cookie-cutter thriller and emerge with a piece that feels fascinating and fresh. After her husband (Channing Tatum) returns from prison on an insider trading charge, Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) begins to show signs of anxiety and depression, for which her new psychiatrist (Jude Law) prescribes her several medications. But when the medications have adverse side effects, things go awry as Mara’s character is charged for murder and Law’s career is put in jeopardy. Indeed, the film begins as a simple murder thriller, yet it quickly morphs into a quiet, chilling drama about corporate intrigue and the prescription drug industry. This isn’t to say that any part of the film feels forced or cliché; rather, it speaks to Soderbergh and Burns’ ingenuity as director and screenwriter that they entice the viewer into their plot so quickly.
From a technical standpoint, the film looks sleek, rather similar to the style Soderbergh used in 2011’s fantastic “Contagion.” A heavy amount of yellows, oranges, and blues dominate the compositions, adding layers of intrigue and mystery. The cinematography, for the most part, is claustrophobic, employing a large number of close-ups, especially when Mara is the center of the shot anticipating further mysteries. The film is made up of an incredibly able cast, and the performances from Law and Mara are particularly strong as Law descends into madness and Mara becomes increasingly shrouded in her own past. Every aspect of “Side Effects” feels tightly crafted and executed-— it comes from a director who, after 25 years of brilliant work, still has a mastery of energetic and compelling filmmaking.
“Side Effects” is absolutely exhilarating, and it succeeds because Soderbergh is an unquestionable master of his craft. There is something bittersweet about the final shot of the film, as the camera zooms out on the streets of New York City. Soderbergh was a director with absolute control over his worlds, building quality film after quality film, be it “Traffic,” “Sex, Lies, and Videotape,” or “Out of Sight.” His is a prolific, dynamic body of work, and if “Side Effects” is indeed his final chapter on the silver screen, it is a fitting goodbye.