The supposed final directorial effort of Steven Soderbegh, huh? That’s neither likely true nor obviously false, but it’s also neither here nor there. Right now, Side Effects can stand on its own as a deliciously twisty, proudly old-fashioned, passionately constructed thriller that works largely because it’s having so much fun working us over. It’s a cinematic screw-over, and in this regard, like many others, it’s quintessential Soderbergh, and one more reminder that the famously eclectic, genre-hopping director really does have a very particular aesthetic after all. That this aesthetic is sometimes “not having an aesthetic for the sake of experimentation and letting the wind of the film follow through on whatever I want to do at this particular point in time” only makes him all the more fascinating.
Perhaps the most fascinating thing about Side Effects is that its marketing was quite literally a lie, and the film maintains the lie for its first full-half. What was expected to be a critique of Big Pharmacy really has essentially nothing to do with the ethics of corporate America, although it sure wants us to think it does. The opening half of the film doesn’t specifically criticize the consumer drug industry, but it certainly sees it as one major force in a crippling, clinical modern society keeping people at a distance from one another. It’s not political, per-se, but it’s deeply weary, and deeply astute. Except it’s more astute than we think it is…it’s not really being astute at all about politics, just making us think it is while it’s setting up the pieces for something more deliciously devious.
Without getting into too much narrative, I’ll say the story begins with Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara), a young woman on the eve of her husband’s return from prison for insider-trading. But she has bigger things on her mind, namely, that it’s in an internal descent into something much different than sanity. When she goes to Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), he gives her a new experimental drug of questionable legality. Things get better and quickly get worse from there. Jonathan is in shock, blaming himself as he tries to save face anyway. The film approaches ethical parable and deep, uneasy moral tension. The side effects seem corrupting. But things are not what they seem.
Filmically, Side Effects has a ball. Soderbergh, as he’s wont to, saps color from the screen when he needs to, bleeding out contrast to fit the character’s descent into clinical decay and madness. Elsewhere, he uses his trademark digital video filming to capture a sort of crystal-clear mundanity sapped of the texture or grain that would appear in proper “film” – Emily’s life is sapped of any such positive or negative emotion, any sense of “lived-in” reality, and the effect is perfect. So many films explore mental disease through chaotic and violent means, wanting to capture emotional whiplash but also to excite the viewers while using the serious subject matter to seem too mature to be using technique for such base concerns. Soderbergh will not let us have this pleasure; he wants us to feel detached, drained, and clinically tired, and his filmmaking captures it gloriously. What’s more, it actually captures it, with no real growing pains whatsoever, for two separate characters as the film progresses. I won’t say anything more to this extent, but let’s just say the film hinges on visual perspective, ends up following a different character than we expect, and has a devious time doing it.
It’s hard to say what the famously intellectual and experimental Soderbergh was getting at with all of this. If the opening half promises something sleek and modern, the film is resolutely old-fashioned (even to the point of being deeply misogynist in its implicit acceptance of women as conniving succubi whose sole existence is to destroy the innocence of men and instill in them serious doubt about their “good” morality). It may be that it’s his way of toying with our expectations for what a modern “mature” film, all interested in governance and social critique, ought to be. To such respectable films he proudly sticks up his middle-finger with a work that really just wants to have a good time having its way with us.
This is ethically deeply, and I emphasize deeply, questionable (if one reads between the lines, essentially, the film amounts to making us think social inequality and capitalism is to fault for something, and then saying “actually, it’s just this one woman’s fault”). This hurts the film immensely, yet the film is also hard to deny in terms of “craft”, and we’d be remiss to assume all art and craft is well-intentioned or ethically sound.
So Side Effects isn’t without issue, not just its problematic ethics but its overall messiness. Over the course of two hours Soderbergh slowly but surely winds us up and confuses us, if only for the sake of confusion, without much else on the mind. And he lets us know it as we’re watching, our jaws dropping slowly but surely as we realize we’ve been had. There’s no “one moment”, or even a twist per-se – it’s a much more holistic thing, something the film is so proud of it wants to incorporate it into its very DNA rather than tacking it on at the end. Side Effects begins as a “film”, a work of intellect, and it ends as a “movie”, a piece made with great intellect but one which proudly uses that intellect for lurid thrills. It’s exceedingly messy for this very reason, and it’s hard to say whether even Soderbergh eventually figured out what he was trying to do here. But there’s so much going on around the film’s edges that it’s easy enough to appreciate it despite not knowing where its heart wanted to take those edges. Still, appreciating it drives a hard bargain, and we ought not excuse this sort of gender treatment in the long, or the short, run.
The Ghost Writer
Above all, Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer is a nervy film, and not one that is nervy about any one thing in particular. It just feels its nerviness right to the bone, in the way Polanski shakes the camera back and forth as if quavering, and in the way Ewan McGregor rocks with it from time to time. It doesn’t need a target because such a figure would be too specific for the film’s more disheartening paranoid streak, a reflection that, more than anything, things will happen in the world that will hurt and cause pain, and there’s really nothing you can do about them and no one specific source to blame. It’s easy to find the same in many of Polanski’s films – even his Oscarbait The Pianist earns its biggest success in the way it subtly mocks the whole inspirational Oscarbait genre by having its main character survive as much by plain luck as anything he actually does to survive. But The Ghost Writer rides the modern nihilist train like few of the director’s films, and it has a heaping load of classical film fun while it’s at it.
Polanski’s film is positively loaded up with subversive ironies that just positively beg smirks. The base narrative, about a ghost writer (Ewan Mcgregor) working on a prime minister’s autobiography visiting his subject (Pierce Brosnan) while on vacation to the states, loads them on left and right. For instance, when a political controversy sparks and the British government disowns Brosnan’s character, the film has its Tony Blair stand-in stuck in America where he can’t be tried for British crimes, no doubt too delicious for Polanski, exiled from America at the time of the film’s making, to not focus on.
Elsewhere, the film could have been a glorified vacation for the cast and crew – it sets everything up to be one – but then Polanski hammers on the oppressive rain and the gloom of it all as if poking fun at all those directorial efforts that amount to little more than a write-off. Best of all though may be the score by Alexander Desplat, as menacing and inquisitive as it is jaunty and exciting. It’s one of the best Hitchcock pastiches in maybe ever, and it says quite loudly “we’re going to create for you some suspense we will, and you’ll enjoy it because we are enjoying the act of making it, or else.” The film is, essentially, a gripping yarn that takes none too much concern about being truthy when it can take, instead, much concern in being fun, and the music is our most constant reminder of this. If the whole thing feigns substance, it’s really just a bucket-full of zest, as bitter and brittle as it is sardonic and sly. But in a world of solemn, glum thrillers, spilling a whole bucket full of zest can fill a mighty portion of the floor indeed.
And the score carries the film on down this path right down to the final winking, nihilistic comeuppance. Polanski winds us up for something dreary and depressing and subverts it by giving us an end-of-film late-title card presented to us on manuscript pages we’ve spent the film exploring the truth of. Now that we’re essentially unsure of whether any of the manuscript’s pages contain any truth whatsoever, presenting the title card of the film on the same paper implicates the film as well, but in a lithe and cheery way. It’s as if it’s saying “does it really matter if it’s real or honest if it’s a gripping yarn in the first place?” Polanski clearly has his answer, but the famously cheeky director retains his mastery of surreptitious (but not too surreptitious) implication even still. He has an answer, but he won’t tell us, because that would spoil the fun.