Warning: ‘Side Effects’ May Include Astonishment

Steven Soderbergh, who for my money is the most versatile filmmaker of the last 25 years, seems to still be planning that retirement from film.

If I may be allowed to beg and plead otherwise, I’d gladly use his last theatrical film Side Effects as reason for him to hang around a little while longer. But that’s not an option, and I believe an artist should go where they want, fulfill themselves and not others.

And so if the psyco-pharma-thriller Side Effects is the last new Soderbergh film I’ll be able to watch in the cinema for five years, 10 years or longer, I can at least be content and satisfied with what is one of the stylish filmmaker’s best efforts in a long time.

Side Effects stars Rooney Mara as Emily Taylor, a woman struggling with depression while welcoming her husband Martin Taylor (Channing Tatum) home from a stay in prison for insider trading. Taylor soon becomes a patient of Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) and begins to receive all sorts of psychological and pharmaceutical treatment.

Rooney Mara as Emily Taylor in 'Side Effects.'

Rooney Mara as Emily Taylor in ‘Side Effects.’

The film quickly establishes itself as yet another very Soderberghian production – a phrase that I’ve yet to understand how to explain in words and can only grasp by image and feel. Side Effects, like other recent Soderbergh features ContagionHaywire, The Informant! and Magic Mike, is a very professional, composed, stylish and film enveloped in warm tones. It also is another collaboration with writer Scott Z. Burns.

There’s a lot about Side Effects that I don’t want to talk about for reasons of spoiling plot. It’s a film that, while not utterly dependent on its plot and character maneuvers, is certainly structurally all about them. Through Burns’ screenplay and Soderbergh’s direction, the viewer ends up in a completely different place at the end of the film than they were in at the middle of the film and certainly the beginning of the film. A dynamic, rousing story that critiques the health care system and pharmaceuticals is the blistering reason for this. Burns writes key characters into well-developed human begins, all with faults and glimpses of evil. In that way, it is one of a kind.

The characters in 'Side Effects' are sometimes thinking more than they're saying.

The characters in ‘Side Effects’ are sometimes thinking more than they’re saying.

But perhaps most key to hanging on to the astonishing, exciting and gripping story that Burns and Soderbergh document is to have fun with it. The characters do a lot of quiet thinking and decision-making, that is to say, things are done and decided without the audience being privy to it. As the film has more than one “main character” we are more observers of a depressing and troubling interaction between multiple than being given any single person’s point of view. These are wonderful, fun characters in the most morbid and morally corrupt way. They are conniving, controlling and convincing. It’s more than just Burns screenplay, it’s Soderbergh’s way of showing, not telling, and the performances that key us in to a lot more than what is just on the outside and shown through their actions.

Soderbergh dominates every genre he touches. He seems to retain originality by approaching all of these different kinds of films with no hang ups and no idea about what a psychological thriller has to be or needs to include. All of the films, as different as they sometimes are, share things and lend bits of themselves to the other ones. Side Effects is certainly a great example of that.

I sat through this Soderbergh film like I’ve sat through all of them. I’m overcome by the beautiful pictures and taken by the strong storytelling tactics. Only this time, I was saddened by the idea that this could very well be the last film from Soderbergh, one of my favorites in the business, that I get to watch in the cinema for a long time.

Mara and Tatum in 'Side Effects,' the last theatrical Steven Soderbergh film...for now.

Mara and Tatum in ‘Side Effects,’ the last theatrical Steven Soderbergh film…for now.

Fincher Plays with Fire and Ice

Heading into David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo I felt conflicted. I’ve never read the book trilogy, but I have seen the Swedish film trilogy – most of which I loved.

Fincher’s version of the first book in Stieg Larsson’s trilogy doesn’t deserve to be compared to Niels Arden Oplev’s 2009 Swedish incarnation of TGWTDT, but anyone who’s already seen it will have trouble trying to stop themselves from drawing similarities and differences from the two eerily similar films.

But I’m going to do my best to not dwell on the fact that two very good film versions of the same story have been made over the last couple of years. Fincher’s work is his own and it’s yet another good, gritty and visceral thriller to add to his impressive body of work.

Journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), fresh off a loss in a libel lawsuit, is hired to investigate a decades old missing woman case on a northern Swedish island. Helping him is Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara), the young computer hacker that did his background check.

Ever since I saw Oplev’s original film and the remaining two in the trilogy I’ve been fascinated in Salander’s character. She was the topic of discussion in a women and film course I took before graduating and for good reason. It’s easy for any writer or director to place a woman in a role of ass kicking and male dominance, but it takes a great one to make it not feel forced and mean something. In the case of both Larsson’s original story and Fincher’s visual take on it, that depth has been attained.

Women have been portrayed a number of polarizing ways during cinema’s existence – strong and weak, dominating and subservient – with the male gaze often being the viewing window for the audience. In TGWTDT that doesn’t change. There’s a lot to Salander, a lot more than is actually discussed, but her unspoken and only visualized power and strength, coupled by her bisexuality and boyish, outsider appearance, speak volumes to her character. It’s more than a woman being placed in a role and being told to be the strong hero – it’s the complete package and Mara executes it in a wonderfully meditative way.

Mara’s performance as Salander reprises the character Noomi Rapace lent so much strength to in Oplev’s film. Both actresses were at the total disposal of their directors and without being fully on board and disciplined their performances would never be so believable and commanding. Mara especially does powerful work. Compared to the boring Craig, who seemed miscast and to be almost going through the motions while waiting for the next James Bond film to begin production, she’s a silent firecracker. Watching the two finally work together is like fire and ice.

I found myself drawing a lot of comparisons to Zodiac, Fincher’s last investigative film. Similar in their lengths, they both do a nice job at laying out the story’s details, secrets and findings. There’s really nothing to be misunderstood and plenty to be taken away. In film form, Larsson’s original story really isn’t all that awe-inspiring, but it’s certainly captivating enough to hold viewers’ attention for more than two and a half hours.

What does leave a mark is the dark, visceral grit that Fincher brings to the production. It’s his signature touch and it resonates violently and loudly with the audience. No less impacting is the wonderful score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who worked with Fincher on last year’s The Social Network. Two totally different subject matters, but Reznor and Ross once again created a lengthy, atmosphere-creating collection of pulsating industrial sounds and lighter ambient noise to compliment Fincher’s stark, cold vision.

I did though at times feel uninspired by moments that along the way just didn’t feel full of any inspiration. The most interesting parts of the story deal with Salander and the perception the male-dominated society has of her. Outside of that, things are sometimes dry. Watching Craig play a journalist/detective isn’t all that fulfilling.

But because Fincher gets the most out of a determined and dedicated Mara, he does manage to turn Larsson’s TGWTDT story into yet another wonderful film adaptation. Was it necessary? I’m not really sure. I think the world could have lived with just Oplev’s great version. Either way, Fincher clearly loved the source material enough to pursue it himself and he nailed it.