If Side Effects is truly Steven Soderbergh’s farewell to theatrical filmmaking, he’s going out in sly fashion, juggling tropes from his other movies, playing games with your head based on what you think you know about him. He’s on top of his material in a way he has rarely been in the last decade—or, rather, in a way he has labored not to be. Soderbergh has been conspicuously searching for new ways to tell stories, to dissolve the boundaries between form and content, taking control of the camera (under the name “Peter Andrews”) to be able to eliminate the middleman and move into the action, to be present—in the same space—with his characters. But the experiments now are ended. Side Effects is a smooth, shapely suspense picture.
Soderbergh opens with a Hitchcock-like traveling shot into the window of a New York apartment building, where his camera picks up a trail of blood. (There’s a lot—it looks serious.) Who died? We’re being teased—we’ll have to wait. Three months earlier, Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) prepares for the release of her husband, Martin (Channing Tatum), from prison, where he served several years for insider trading—a crime that cost the couple their Greenwich manse and fancy friends. Emily is visibly strung-out, giving off powerful suicidal vibes. Obviously, this chick needs meds. And she gets them from an emergency-room psychiatrist, Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), who releases her on the condition she see him privately. In the meantime, he’ll prescribe some selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors.
The references to SSRIs and other antidepressants and mood stabilizers come so fast that Side Effects appears to be Soderbergh’s plague movie, Contagion, recast as social satire. (The screenwriter is the same, Scott Z. Burns.) Everyone’s on something—Effexor, Wellbutrin, Zoloft. (I was nodding along with the brand names, whispering, “I took that!”) Dr. Banks has just moved into a high-priced apartment with his unemployed wife, Dierdre (Vinessa Shaw), and young son, so when Big Pharma offers him 50 grand to take part in a study for a new antidepressant, he accepts with alacrity. It’s not that he’s a sleaze. He’s a believer. He pushes a beta-blocker on Dierdre, who’s paralyzed with fear over an upcoming job interview. With these, he says, “it’s easier to be who you are.” When poor, helpless Emily asks about a new pill that’s all the rage, he thinks, “Why not?” And all at once she’s different.
Little more should be said about the plot, which at some point takes a sharp turn into the noir terrain Soderbergh plumbed in his 1995 Criss Cross remake, Underneath. The movie’s great unknowable is Mara, an actress who seems most in her element at her most subterranean. Her face is a mask (Eyes Without a Face swims to mind); there’s an instant’s hesitation between thought and speech, as if her words have to travel up through water to the surface. You can study that chiseled face with its pale, glassy peepers and feel no closer to understanding her, but you get the feeling there’s something down there. Figuring out what is half the fun.
Jude Law, on the other hand, is appealingly superficial. His career as a romantic lead having sputtered out, he can let his hair recede, forget about striking movie-star poses, and do what he does very well: studies in self-involvement. His Dr. Banks is an ordinary man—decent, well meaning, casually corrupt but no more so than any other shrink on the Big Pharma dole—who’s challenged on grounds he had no idea even existed. A woman is unhappy? You talk, prescribe, ask how the pills are working, prescribe something else to counter the side effects, and send out a bill. In this case, he actually goes the extra mile: He reaches out to Emily’s previous therapist, an electric eel named Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones) who eats him up with her eyes and evidently enjoys—not unlike other kinds of pushers—standing on street corners talking about drugs. Persecuted and abandoned, he’ll have to stop thinking about everyone else and save his own hide.
In most of his films, Soderbergh comes off as a seeing brain, with one thesis idea per movie and an unwillingness (or inability) to change course when he knows that his thesis isn’t working. (My sense is that he often knows; his main complaint about critics, oddly enough, is that they’re too soft.) He’s not a one-trick pony, only a one-trick-per-show pony. But in Side Effects, he’s mixing up conventions, playing cheerfully in the shallow end of the pool. Here, as elsewhere, Soderbergh’s view of capitalist society is jaundiced bordering on apocalyptic, but noir rewards cynicism as much as it punishes romanticism. So happy endings—of a sort—are within reach. His alleged last theatrical film is paranoid and hopeless, but he leaves the field with a bounce in his step.
How can anyone not adore Paolo and Vittorio Taviani’s Caesar Must Die? In a scant hour and a quarter it enlarges your notion of what theater and cinema, what art itself, can do—it dissolves every boundary it meets. Any attempt to pin the movie down reduces it, but this is the setup: A group of prisoners in an Italian maximum-security prison (most with sentences in the teens, some lifers) audition, are cast, and rehearse a production (heavily abridged) of Julius Caesar. Quickly, the roles take over, and we’re watching the play itself. But reality intrudes—a missed line, a suggestion from the director, a prisoner who breaks off to reflect on the connections between his character’s dilemmas and his own past or present. If that sounds schematic (it does), let me add that there’s little in the way of a one-to-one correspondence between Julius Caesar and the everyday reality of a maximum-security prison. The effect is more suggestive. You’re inside the play and then outside, in and out, until where you literally are doesn’t matter anymore. You’re in a heightened, concentrated space in which every action ripples outward.
The Taviani brothers were inspired by a production of Dante’s Divine Comedy in the Rebibbia prison on the outskirts of Rome, and they went back to Rebibbia to make Caesar Must Die with a cast of inmates and theater director Fabio Cavalli (who plays himself). Throughout the film, you hear the hubbub of other prisoners, the distant opening and closing of steel doors; the actors rehearse in corridors, their cells, and the concrete courtyard on which many of the inmates (and the guards) can look down. It would be too simple to say that murderers, drug traffickers, and members of organized-crime syndicates have a natural affinity for Shakespeare’s backstabbing “men of honor,” but almost from the start they understand the play’s stakes. As Brutus broods on the magnitude of his crime, actor Salvatore Striano seems to be weighing—and regretting—every casual, irreversible decision he has ever made.
Apart from an early and late scene in which the play is performed before an invited audience, Caesar Must Die is in stark black and white, perfect for a world stripped down to its elements. But the oppressive milieu is no match for the language of the play. Finally, men who’ll never again see the world outside their prison walls have a way to soar.
In Conversation: Steven Soderbergh