Steven Soderbergh's comments about an early retirement so ridiculously surprising. He said that following his directing duties on Magic Mike, Behind the Candelabra, and 2013's Side Effects that he would retire from directing to focus on his painting. Since, Soderbergh has backed off those statements, but if it's his last feature film, Side Effects is a good one to close on.
Having been convicted of insider trading, Martin Taylor (Channing Tatum) has served a four-year sentence and is being released, reuniting him with his wife, Emily (Rooney Mara), of five years who waited for him the whole time. So many years apart though, Emily is worried about seeing her husband again. His prior arrest ripped away their lives completely, forcing her to move back to NYC, and now she's worried about starting all over again as her depression starts to kick in. Going through breakdowns and emotions she can't quite explain, Emily turns to a new psychiatrist, Dr. Jon Banks (Jude Law), for help. He begins to treat the troubled young woman, seeing a difficult problem but one that can be dealt with and minimized. His treatments and recommendation have varying effects, forcing Emily to ask for a different anti-depressant, a new drug that's experienced good results. Can it help? Can it help make Emily the girl she used to be and wants to be again?
From Ocean's 11 to Traffic, Contagion to Haywire and just about every other movie he's done in between, Soderbergh is one of the more unique talents working in Hollywood. If he is leaving directing for good, Hollywood is a lot less talented and a lot less interesting without him. He does it here again, putting his own spin on a familiar genre, the thriller. Without giving too much away, I can also say that the plot description above isn't quite misleading, but it only begins to scratch the surface. More on that a little later though. That Soderbergh look; cold, muted and sterile is there. His camera angles are off-center and stationary, leaving the attention on his cast. As well, a deceptive trance-like score from composer Thomas Newman is a gem, a change of pace from his always solid scores but definitely something different. Soderbergh's familiar style is there, something we've come to expect from this very talented director's works.
What makes him more than just a flash in the pan director though is the style mixed with substance. I remember just watching the trailer to this flick before its theatrical release and even then being very confused. From a trailer! Working off a script from writer Scott Z. Burns, 'Effects' is made in the vein of a Hitchcock thriller, and I almost always intend that as a compliment. The mood is tense throughout, that tension building to almost unbearable levels at different points. With Newman's score, Soderbergh's subtle cinematography techniques, Burns' script works like a slow burn. The opening scene shows bloody tracks through an apartment and then immediately flashes back to three months earlier. While it is a story about pharmaceuticals and depression and diseases you can't see, it's also so much more. Things get thrown a big old curveball about the halfway point, and from there on in it is one twist and turn after another. It's definitely a movie that would be interesting to give a rewatch, but pay attention and you'll be fine.
From movie to movie, Soderbergh certainly gets his fair share of talented actors and actresses who want to work with him, sometimes to the point we keep seeing those folks showing up in multiple movies. Fresh off her Oscar-nominated turn in the American version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Mara is excellent as Emily, a 28-year old married woman struggling with the turns her life has taken. For the most part, she underplays the part with a few exceptions late. Like just about everyone else, Mara does a really good job keeping us guessing as an audience. I think the best performance from 'Effects' belongs to Jude Law who previously worked with Soderbergh in another gem, Contagion. An underrated actor in general in my opinion, Law as Dr. Banks is a scene-stealer. He thinks his relationship with Mara's Emily is going one way only to find out so much more is going on. Regardless, it is two excellent, movie-making performances from two talented individuals.
Who else? How about Soderbergh favorite Channing Tatum? Already having starred in Soderbergh's Magic Mike and Haywire (albeit briefly), Tatum makes it a trio here. Psych, it's not much of a performance, unfortunately because with recent roles Tatum has shown he can be quite the actor. Instead, he's relegated to eye candy status here, given nothing to do in a small role. Don't expect two hours of Tatum is all I'm saying. Rounding out the major parts is Catherine Zeta-Jones as Dr. Siebert, Emily's psychiatrist from her past who Banks turns to when he needs more information about his patient. It's a supporting part, but a key one just the same. Also look for Vinessa Shaw as Banks' wife, Dierdre.
From where I'm sitting, it's hard at this point to discuss too much more of the movie. This is definitely one that you need a clean slate going into so the less you know, the better. Here's what I can say. It's very stylish but there's an excellent twisting story to back it up. Very good cast, stylish, story, and it keeps you guessing. Well worth seeking out.
Side Effects (2013): ***/****