There are many rumours circulating that director Steven Soderbergh is retiring from the movie making business. And there are a lot of people hoping that this isn’t the case, since he’s a director who, while guilty of the odd mis-step, is someone who is always willing to experiment, switch genres and come up with something interesting, something that audiences might not have been expecting. After all, his CV includes the widely disparate, yet uniformly excellent, Traffic, Erin Brockovich, Out of Sight, Che and Magic Mike. He’s not a man to be pigeon-holed.
If he is retiring, then he’s going out with Side Effects, a twisty thriller starring Rooney Mara and Jude Law. Law plays Dr Jonathan Banks, a somewhat glib, self-confident psychiatrist whose life takes an unexpected turn when he meets Emily Taylor (Mara) during his hospital rounds. Emily has just driven her car into a wall at a traffic garage and her mental state is a concern to Banks. He takes her on as a patient and starts treating her apparent depression with a series of drugs “ leading to the side effects of the title.
Where Side Effects excels is in its ability to keep shifting the ground underneath your feet. You’re never quite sure what’s going on and what will happen next. It’s hard even to be certain what genre the film will settle on “ is it going to be a noirish thriller, a damning indictment of the moral vacuum of the pharmaceutical industry, or an exploration of damaged psyches? At times it is all of these and more.
The performances are strong too and there’s a pleasing ambiguity in never being sure who is the good guy and who you should be rooting for. Rooney Mara builds on her growing reputation with her portrayal of the troubled Emily. The direction too is strong, with disconcerting use of music (and the lack of it) and clever shots to give a sense of the disconnection from reality that Emily must be feeling.
However, the problem I had with the movie is that the plot strand it eventually chooses and the path it follows is perhaps less interesting that many of the others it hinted at taking, leading to a vaguely unsatisfactory finale. The last third of the film is a lot more straightforward than we might have been expecting and it’s all a touch underwhelming. So Side Effects isn’t Soderbergh’s finest effort, but there’s lots of interest going on, and it’s certainly good enough to make us hope he’s got a few more movies in him yet.