It is a great shame he's stopping and I do hope it's temporary but there is some good news, judging from his recent spate of films and the fact that this is one of his last directorial roles, there's a great deal of positivity for his latest film Side Effects, a film that appears to carry similar themes to Contagion. Joining him on the film as the writer is Scott Z. Burns who has collaborated with Soderbergh on a number of other films, a few on that list above, and so the anticipation rises once again.
Added to the names of Soderbergh and Burns we have Rooney Mara and Jude Law taking the leading roles with a strong supporting cast including Catherine Zeta-Jones and Channing Tatum, an equally enticing line-up of talent in front of the camera ready for what could turn out to be an interesting and powerful thriller.
There are two things that are clear from the beginning of Side Effects, one is that it's a Steven Soderbergh film and two that there's a strong leading actress in Rooney Mara. I have to admit that while I liked the remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo I did not leave the film thinking as highly of her as I did of Noomi Rapace in the original The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Filmstalker review), in fact I didn't think much of her after the film and never really knew much about her before. That has definitely changed now though and I'll be keeping an eye out for more appearances from her.
Mara delivers a great performance that covers quite the range her character's story demands. She gives a performance that ranges from the emotionless to powerful, at times frightening and others hugely vulnerable. There are a few scenes that are very demanding and yet she delivers them extremely well, very convincingly. This film and this performance has totally changed my idea of who Rooney Mara is and what she is capable of as an actress and I think it will be doing the same for directors and casting people alike.
Since I've leapt into the review mentioning the people in front of the camera I feel I must mention some of the other excellent performances in the film, Jude Law for one. I think people sometimes miss his acting ability over the characters he's playing, and I've talked to people who have a certain view or dislike of Law when I mention him, often associating him with specific roles in his career, and yet he's had so many diverse roles. Here he has another one, and a rather normal character too, and he plays him perfectly.
I really enjoyed his performance of the doctor, a man whose actions overtake him and threaten to bring everything he's worked for crashing down. He plays it very real and the emotions he delivers feel right at the right moments. He's easy to connect with and understand and because of the well written script and character focussed direction he, and the other actors and actresses, never leap into fanciful territory, even for a moment. I actually don't think Jude Law has been any better in his career than with some of his recent roles, and two of them with Steven Soderbergh.
I do think there's something about Soderbergh that must bring out the best in actors, he focuses the film on the character and the performance, performances which are always grounded in a reality that brings it right to the audience, no matter the subject matter, even in films like Contagion.
I also have to mention Catherine Zeta-Jones who not only looks fantastic on screen but also delivers a wonderful performance. I am in fear of repeating myself with regards her role as everything I've said about the leads applies to her too, she's rather surprising here and I wonder why she isn't getting more weighty roles because she really does grab them and deliver them well. She was a deliciously dark and mysterious character - let's have more of them please.
Side Effects is a great thriller that really concentrates on the characters and their stories. It isn't distracted by grand sequences and bringing in character filled scenes to offer scale and drama, the film prefers to keep the camera focused tightly on the leading characters bringing in the occasional side character or location to help tell the story but keeping the rest fixed on our main four. This works so well because of the direction, the performances and above all the writing of the story, of the characters and the dialogue.
It is expertly written and directed and I loved the way the opening scene is a portent for the later key scene. With this we find it is no longer a traditional Hollywood surprise and yet it still delivers a shock through the quietness of the moment. Amazingly it caused a number of the press audience in the Scottish Press Day screening to gasp out loud, and that included me, and this was after a day of non-stop films. If that isn't a recommendation of the strength of these moments then I don't know what is.
There are many more powerful moments like that and none utilising standard studio tricks and neither do these moments seem in isolation. While you might guess some of the moments before they arrive they still offer a surprise and a twist, not least because you're invested in the characters so much more than most thrillers.
For a good part of the film it did feel like it was going to be more about building the film around the pharmaceuticals and the industry, but that begins to change and the thriller takes over, the idea of the pharmaceutical industry is still there and returns near the end but the thriller becomes top billing.
The last act has a great turnaround that I really enjoyed, especially because of the direction it then took the film. It keeps going from there with a powerful last act which brings a good few surprising and unsettling moments that still leave you with a number of questions. I have to admit that there was a feeling at the end that I didn't want to leave the characters and wanted more, but I knew we'd left them at a good point for a satisfying ending.
I did have a few issues though. The closing dramatic shots seemed a little rushed and that was probably one of the reasons I was left wanting more from them. There are a few loose ends, particularly with a couple of characters, and I would have liked to have seen more of them. Perhaps just a little more expansion around the scenes they had or a little more in the way of explanatory moments for their decisions and reasoning. At the very end it did feel just that little bit too quick.
I also felt that there was a little rush in the character of the Doctor when he leaps into the conspiracy stage and gets a little obsessed where he, and the film, has the potential to blow the scope much wider. Thankfully the film doesn't allow that to happen but the character does go a little bit close to the edge a little too quickly and come back at just the same pace. I do wonder if there was some trimming going on around these sequences. All in all this section wasn't necessarily required for the story but it did feel good to have the character come back.
Despite my praise for the realistic writing and the natural performances it is here that I had problems believing the character of the Doctor. I did think that he needed a little more to push him in the direction he went and to make the decisions he does in that final act. Perhaps there is a little more to the character change that hasn't ended up in the film, and maybe one day we'll get to see them, but for now it isn't a deal breaker and is just a little glitch in an otherwise excellent thriller.
Side Effects is another great thriller from Steven Soderbergh and Scott Z. Burns. It may not be entirely what you expect but it is a powerful character driven film which feels all too close to reality and, through the dramatic story, raises some interesting issues regarding our reliance on drugs and what they could in fact be doing to us.
Rooney Mara, Jude Law and Catherine Zeta-Jones are fantastic in the film and I really took to both Law and Zeta-Jones. Mara surprised me with such a strong and emotionally ranged performance, and there's no denying that she has so much more ahead of her.
The story delivers a dramatic film which never explodes into some great corporate tale, something that could so easily have happened with Side Effects. Both Burns and Soderbergh have already showed that they were quite capable of holding back with such material considering the scale that Contagion offered. Here the scale is kept even tighter but it still manages to raise important, wide reaching issues while all the time keeping us connected and invested in these few characters.
I prescribe a heavy dose of Side Effects for you all. It's a damn good film. Don't go Mr Soderbergh.