Side Effects, Vertigo, and Soderbergh the Storyteller
Whenever you’re watching a Steven Soderbergh film, you know you’re in good hands. Whether it’s the crowd-pleasing Ocean’s trilogy, the more experimental Girlfriend Experience, his foray into television with the massively underrated K Street, or even his attempt at exploitative action (Haywire) there’s no doubt that a master is at work, and he knows exactly what he’s doing.
Side Effects is one of his most assured pieces – a glorious finale to his oeuvre, and a comforting tip of the hat to Hitchcock. But unlike the pedantic masturbatory exercises that Brian DePalma would forever pump out in homage to the Master of Suspense (Dressed to Kill and Body Double), Side Effects is not a riff or tongue-in-cheek spin on Hitchcock. Instead, it’s a methodical, intelligent meditation on obsession, delusion, and the big con that would forever haunt Hitchcock and drive him to explore the dishonest nature of mankind in general.
Like Psycho, Side Effects distracts us with a character who may or may not be our protagonist and may or may not be trustworthy. I’m attempting to keep the plot details as non-specific as possible so as not to spoil, but as with the best thrillers, and my personal favorite storytelling mantra, “things are not what they seem.” We should not take anything anyone does or says for granted. Are we following Marion Crane from Psycho who pulls off a misguided last minute robbery, or is this a much more sinister and focused Judy Barton from Vertigo?
We are introduced to several characters that may or may not play larger roles as the intrigue intensifies. Is Channing Tatum our protagonist, or could it be Jude Law? Channing has the most fascinating backstory. Just released from prison after being found guilty of insider trading, he’s on a course to get his life back. But his ever faithful wife, Rooney Mara, is suffering (again, we learn) from suicidal thoughts and depression, a byproduct of her perfectly perfect life that spiraled out of control – the humiliating moment her husband was arrested on the lawn of a summer party, the keys to a new car in her hand that her hand-cuffed husband just gave to her.
As with Vertigo, there’s a mystery here that all of the ancillary characters are telling our protagonist to “just leave alone.” Let the dead rest with the dead. But as with Jimmy Stewart’s ex-detective Scotty, there’s more than just curiosity at stake. There’s a personal reputation, and sociopathic need to reveal the truth.
In Psycho, Marion Crane’s sister takes up the cold case of her missing sister. She also is dismissed by others who assume Crane has run off with the stolen money. No one but the obsessive Lila (Vera Miles) is rewarded for her unflagging and obsessive search for the truth. And as in the best of Hitchcock (The Lady Vanishes, The 39 Steps, Saboteur) it’s the presumed guilty that are forced by circumstance and their own personal issues of obsession, guilt and paranoia to find the truth that proves their ultimate redemption.
One of Soderbergh’s best devices, almost always used to perfect effect in the past, is his ability to mess with time (and not in the flashy Tarantino way), and give us dual, sometimes triple realities where we realize something we saw initially was purposely made to confuse us and was meant to be misinterpreted on the first viewing. Everything is there to tell the correct reality, but it’s the assembly of images in the linear order we are accustomed to that tripped us up in the first place. Even light fare like Ocean’s 11 plays with this convention, so that we can follow the gang’s meticulous planning of a heist, and still be conned ourselves when the real story comes to light.
Much has been made in film classes (and my own, ad nauseum) about the “bomb under the tea table” – an analogy Hitchcock used to differentiate shock with suspense. If two people are having dinner, and there is a massive explosion and they both die, we have a moment of extreme shock and surprise, but that’s the end of it. If, instead, we see the two characters having dinner, and we know there is a bomb ticking right underneath them, we are now brought into the crime before it happens, and what we have is suspense.
Soderbergh understands this, and goes one step further. Playing an entire scenario out from beginning to end, even giving us the culpable characters plotting beforehand, so we are inherently tied to the plot, and yet after the crime, and subsequent investigation, realize we were being “had” all along.
Side Effects is also a modern expose on our need for mood-altering drugs. They are so woven into our fabric, that the ability to prescribe, pass off, take and react to these serotonin enhancing or inhibiting pills is ubiquitous. Soderbergh implies that not only can the drug manufacturers be a big part of the problem, but we as a society are willing allies with doctors and pharmacists, as complicit and guilty as the manufacturers of these new weapons of choice.
If the publicity around Soderbergh’s imminent exit from film directing is, in fact, true – we are losing on of the great voices in modern storytelling. One who not only forges new ground, but understands, respects and reinterprets the old masters like Hitchcock, who created film grammar -a grammar that is in more need of resuscitation now than ever before.