Friday, 15 March 2013

Film Review: Side Effects (2013)

Director: Steven Soderbergh
Writer: Scott Z. Burns
Stars: Rooney Mara, Channing Tatum, Jude Law and Catherine Zeta-Jones

Steven Soderbergh is undeniably one of the most important directors to breakout into Hollywood in the last 30 years, and his filmography, whilst not always successful, can never be accused of sticking to a winning formula and rarely taking the blockbuster route.

Soderbergh is a progressive film maker, always looking to experiment in film making techniques and different ways of telling a story even if this is sometimes to the detriment of the film in question. His love of shooting on digital has seen him release eight films in just over four years and has seen some of his weakest output, namely the awful The Girlfriend Experience and Haywire, Contagion (which would have been far better if he’d made it as an HBO mini series), and the highly over rated Magic Mike. Recently Soderbergh announced his retirement from directing and said Side Effects will be his last cinematic release; if it is, he will have bowed out with one of his very best films.

Side Effects is vintage Soderbergh and easily his best film since his foray into digital. Gone is the low budget, TV-feel look of recent films and back is the quality, cinematic film making we saw with Che: Parts One and Two with a gripping, twisting story to complement the direction. One can’t say too much about the story of this film without spoiling the film entirely, but it’s no spoiler to say Side Effects keeps the audience guessing from beginning to end and nothing should be taken for granted.

The film evokes a ‘Hitchcockian’ feel throughout, opening with a slow zoom on a New York apartment window, several extreme low angles, a foreboding tracking shot of a blood-splattered floor, and a femme fatale (I’ll say no more) and Soderbergh cranks the tension patiently and steadily without ever once going overboard. It is the sign of a director who has total control over his production, and that is something so rare in modern cinema. Moreover, Soderbergh has always demonstrated total control over his films and this is something which sets him apart from many of his contemporaries.

One of the most impressive aspects of the film is the performances by Rooney Mara and Jude Law. Mara shows a range which is far beyond what her limited filmography might suggest, and gets more to do here than in her breakout performance The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and her performance ultimately makes or breaks the film; in lesser hands (Blake Lively was once attached...) the film could have fallen flat. Moreover, Jude Law gives one of the best performances of his career and is superbly convincing as the ‘real man’ in peril where so often he just appears to be going through the motions and picking up the paycheque. Law is an actor who has never quite lived up to the potential he showed in The Talented Mr Ripley and Road To Perdition although not through a lack of talent, and with Side Effects he has material where he can really shine and show range.

The film isn’t quite perfect and there are problems with the final 20 minutes. The reliance on the ‘this is how I did it’ flashback and exposition feels a little rushed and too familiar a plot device for a film displaying this quality up until that point. There are several twists in the final act, and perhaps not enough time is given to help flesh these out to help make it truly believable, and the conclusion of Jude Law’s character felt a little empty; there was potential for a great twist that was expected considering everything that we’d seen thus far, but never actually happened. A spoiler-free review can’t go into too much detail on this, but let’s just say ‘ex-patient’ and leave it at that.

Stop thinking for yourself verdict: Minor quibbles aside, Side Effects is as near-perfect a thriller as we’ve seen in many, many years and is a certain top ten for 2013. It may go down as one of the best Hollywood releases of the decade. Yes, it’s that good.

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