The methodology in which Steven Soderbergh introduces ethical concerns in the face of fiscal necessity has never been executed with such wit and complexity as his most recent films. Fundamentally, much of Soderbergh’s work revolves around the central concept of how one contends with financial burdens. It’s the sort of thematic element that he tackles in pictures like King of the Hill (1993), Erin Brockovich (2000), and The Girlfriend Experience (2009). Even Soderbergh’s more high-octane casual efforts have introduced this in one way or the other, particularly in the Ocean’s films and Magic Mike (2012). With Side Effects, Soderbergh mines deeper, opting to address the broad emotional implications of what motivates financial insecurities- Side Effects becomes less a film about pharmaceuticals and money-mongering and more a film about jealousy, rage, and sexuality.
Not to say any of those concepts have somehow managed to escape Soderbergh’s grasp – all of it has been touched upon throughout his work starting with his debut sex, lies, and videotape (1989). Rather, it’s all consolidated in one singular effort. This perhaps makes Side Effects too much of a greatest hits version of Soderbergh’s collective work, though one can’t fault the man for his execution. While Side Effects may suffer from an unclear thematic purpose, its narrative anxieties and technical prowess exceeds high expectations. Scott Z. Burns scripts this third outing with Soderbergh (after penning The Informant! (2009) and Contagion (2010). While it’s not Burns’ best effort, it remains a successful venture largely for the aura of plausibility that Rooney Mara gives to her central character. The narrative twists and turns of the picture border on ludicrous, yet Mara’s wariness that gives her character so much nuance. For a film that largely depends on being kept in the dark on a character’s mental state of mind, Mara inspires constant uncertainty.
A narrative sleight of hand occurs 45 minutes into Side Effects that can only be truly appreciated after the film reaches its conclusion. A shift in focus occurs where one character’s mental state is exchanged for another. It’s an incredible juxtaposition, in hindsight, especially given the narrative direction Side Effects takes from there as he flips from one perspective to another. It’s a testament to Soderbergh and Burns’ ability to maintain such fluid control of their characters even as they’re taking some rather bold narrative risks by shifting perspectives and leaping through time. Yet, on the whole, it all comes together with brisk ease.
It’s in this way that Soderbergh truly emerges as a master of his craft. Simply looking at all the aforementioned films noted throughout this review, one can’t help but appreciate the man’s cinematic contributions over such a vast array of genres. There’s a true sense of identity that connect all of his films thematically yet they’re all so eclectic on the surface level. Reportedly Soderbergh’s final feature film, Side Effects is the auteur’s swan song that just about unites all his work into one sly package – the bitter pill in all of this is that it comes to a stop here.