Like the Dardennes and Hong Sang-soo, Steven Soderbergh is too often taken for granted. What these filmmakers share in common, other than their abundance of talent, isn’t so much prolificacy—though the latter two do indeed have that—as it is a very particular combination of steadiness and reliability. Few qualities, it seems, are as counterintuitively harmful to a director’s reputation than sheer constancy, which tends to have the effect of nullifying excitement and suppressing anticipation for whatever guaranteed success comes next. We saw this early last year, when the Dardenne brothers’ masterful “The Kid with a Bike” arrived in the U.S. to a pitiful absence of the fanfare it deserved, and again when Hong’s superb “In Another Country” surfaced stateside later in the year after its decidedly cool reception at Cannes that May.
It happened most recently just two months ago, with the theatrical release of “Side Effects”, Steven Soderbergh’s 25th feature film and, if his self-proclaimed filmmaking hiatus proves permanent, his last. “Side Effects”, a Hitchcockian “pharmaceutical thriller”, did modest business at the box office, making back its relatively slim budget but not much more. It was received warmly, if without enthusiasm, clocking in at a respectable 75 on MetaCritic and walking away designated “Certified Fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes. But the overall tenor of its reception was lukewarm, with many of its most ardent admirers conceding, rather half-heartedly, that the film is merely a satisfying trifle from a competent and workmanlike auteur. As with nearly every new Soderbergh film, most compliments felt backhanded: it’s been described as “effortless”, “stylish”, “likeable”, “a neat little noir” that’s “great fun” and “a dose to pleasure centers”. And these are quotes from the positive reviews.
The recurring sentiment from critics, in other words, is that “Side Effects” is perfectly fine: it’s a frivolous entertainment broadsheet journalists find worthy of casual endorsement. Part of the problem with this kind of flippancy is that it’s a disservice to a director whose dependability as a purveyor of competent genre films has created an illusion of their insignificance. Because Soderbergh, especially over the past several years, has been producing new films with such astonishing regularity—and because each of these new films has proven equally elegant and sophisticated in design and construction—one eventually gets the mistaken impression that the films themselves, taken as a continuing whole, are altogether tossed-off or minor, less worthy of serious consideration than if they’d each arrived years apart. This is less a failing of individual critics to recognize important work when they see it than it is a malfunction of the institution, which more or less arbitrarily privileges perceived effort and labor over uncomplicated celerity.
The real shame in all of this, other than the sad fact that an important American filmmaker is going underappreciated in his time, is that “Side Effects” is clearly a major work, emerging now that the dust has mostly settled as not only a great Steven Soderbergh film but perhaps even his best. Soderbergh has long been fascinated by the inner workings of systems—of information, economy, power—and he has proven himself, over the course of his last four films in particular, deeply attuned to the nuances of their daily machinations, working through their functions and implications toward a broader conception of social and cultural structure.
“The Girlfriend Experience”, “Haywire” and “Magic Mike”, loosely described as the director’s “body trilogy”, explored the relationship between physicality, agency, and the systems to which bodies are fundamentally subordinated. Each approached the same basic subject from a unique social angle—prostitution, martial arts, and dancing, respectively—and each in turn arrived at a conclusion about the confluence of money and the body that earns it.
At first blush “Side Effects” seems simply another foray into similar territory, this time zeroing in on mental health and the systemic corruption of Big Pharma. But while the film, like the others, has much to say about how the body may be employed to economic ends—in this case how a person can actively suspend their physical agency, or at least appear to, in order to reap the rewards of having no control—it’s actually closer to Soderbergh’s last pre-body film, “Contagion”, in both spirit and design. Like “Contagion”, “Side Effects” is about the spread of information as a kind of mental contaminant, a self-authored disease disseminated and absorbed as quickly as it can be articulated. And also like “Contagion”, “Side Effects” is more interested in the modes of dissemination than in the content of what’s spread: one of the most surprising things about the film, more than any one dramatic twist, is that the ostensible subject at hand is ultimately a red herring, a plot point intended to throw us off the trail of what’s really going on. (Those wishing to avoid spoilers may wish to stop reading here.)
Big Pharma—emblemized, from the outset, by a hot new SSRI called “Ablixa”—is only indicted by the film as one component of a deeply corrupt system, less a corporate boogeyman than a function of the culture to which we all subscribe. When “Side Effects” suddenly pivots, halfway through its running time, ceasing to be a slowburn drama about a depressed woman’s brainwashing at the behest of a sinister drug and transforming instead into a stylized thriller about deception and revenge, it isn’t a case of a heady critique descending into camp genre play. It’s quite the opposite, in fact: Soderbergh fully embraces generic convention as a vehicle for a more thorough and unnerving exploration of a subject he’s clearly more interested in, that of abundant (mis)information and the ease with which we are capable of accessing it.
“Side Effects”, at its core, is a film about data—stock prices, pharmaceutical studies, background checks, news reports—and how readily that data can be predicted, manipulated, and narrativized. It’s essentially the story of how two women attempt to create a narrative out of information, a narrative which will end in a major pay-day, and how a man who falls victim to that narrative reshapes it to his own ends. One of the final shots of the film finds the camera following the chaos that breaks out when the police try to arrest our presumptive antagonist, the shaky-cam work and long tracking shot around parked cabs and cop cars an obvious echo of “Chinatown” and its infamous final shot.
But where “Chinatown” ended in the defeat of its hero—his failure before a corrupt and powerful system— “Side Effects” rather pointedly ends with its hero’s victory by submitting to the same corruption and playing it to his advantage. It’s a “happy” ending, but in a way it’s darker and more cynical. That’s central to why “Side Effects” is so compelling: though an overtly stylized and even artificial thriller by design, the raw material it engages with is deeply resonant and true. To invoke a critical cliche, it’s a film about the world as we live in it today.