If there is one overarching idea to be found in his films, however, it is deception. Whether in his Ocean's trilogy, Contagion, or any of his other remarkable films, constantly keeping his audience off kilter is something he seems to strive for, be it by making something funny that shouldn't be, by maneuvering characters in ways you wouldn't expect, or some other stratagem that he thinks of on the fly. Rarely are his films about the characters, but are so often more about the plot and the cold as ice worlds that Sodebergh portrays.
Never then has a film more perfectly fit Sodebergh as an artist than his most recent release Side Effects. Evoking Hitchcock as well as the film noir classics of old that featured Humphrey Bogart or Orson Welles, Side Effects is less a crime drama than it is a hybrid thriller/chess match. It's difficult to really go into plot details without spoiling the experience, so suffice it to say that the film begins with a woman named Emily's life spiraling out of control. Like a virus Emily and her depression contaminates those around her, pumping more and more chaos to into their previously serene existence, causing their emotional wellbeing to begin to plummet just as quickly as hers. At the film's beginning is a suicide attempt, in the middle is a murder and at the end one character wins and one character loses. What happens between these major events is where the real meat of the story exists: the sensational twists, turns, lies, and accusations.
Caught up in this maelstrom are the aforementioned Emily Taylor (portrayed here by Rooney Mara, fresh off of her Oscar nomination for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo), her just-released-from-prison husband Martin (Channing Tatum continuing his inconceivable run of success), Emily's psychiatrist Doctor Johnathan Banks (Jude Law) and her previous psychiatrist Doctor Victoria Seibert (Catherine Zeta Jones). As with many of his other films, Sodebergh seems to not care about the characters within his world, viewing them less as fully realized human beings and more as pieces to be moved to satisfy his need for deception. This is true until the film's center when Doctor Banks moves from a side character to a full blown protagonist, throwing the whole film upside down as a result of the shift that takes place. Suddenly instead of Emily's depression, the viewer is inundated with Bank's obsessions, which create a storm just as violent in the last hour as the hour of morbid depression that preceded it.
Looking at the film as two chapters then, rather than one story, this is ultimately a film about altering one's perspective. Much like Emily in the beginning of the film the audience is lulled into almost a drugged and sedate like feeling. We become anxious as we observe things that shouldn't necessarily be happening and claustrophobic by the walls, which under Sodebergh's hands and even through James Newton Howard's musical cues seem to be ever getting closer. And then finally, with the murder it is like the drugs are thrown away, allowing a descent into full on madness with Jude Law as the guide. Things we thought we knew are proven false, characters become different beings entirely, and the film becomes so much more exhilarating as a result.
On a technical level the film is seamless. Like every Sodebergh production, the editing is one of its strongest elements, putting the audience into either the dull state of one that is drugged or the jagged on-edge state that happens when those drugs wear off. The music here is subtle, but no less effective in setting the mood for the piece.
While these would normally be the highlight of a Sodebergh effort, however, it is the masterful script and amazing performances which really bring this film to life. Keeping the viewer continually off guard and raising serious ethical questions about the medical treatment of depressed patients, this is a courtroom drama, film noir, conspiracy thriller, and medical drama all wrapped into one. And yet, for how serious it often is, it simultaneously feels light on its feet, never dragging along or belaboring any of its many points.
The ensemble is just as impressive here. Mara proves that even without the makeup or goth costuming that she can more than hold together a film as its lead. Her grief is real, but there is likely so much more to this performance than the initial frailty and sadness that you see the first time through, which will make later viewings all the more rewarding. Catherine Zeta Jones, Channing Tatum, and Anne Dowd are likewise wonderful in smaller roles, each bringing more than the script required of them. Ultimately, however, this Jude Law's show. The role of Johnathan Banks allows Law for the first time in several years to become unhinged. Law is not so much an actor here as a force and one that crescendoes as the film reaches its conclusion. Moving from the calm presence we always expect from him into an intensity reminiscent of Jimmy Stewart at his peak, this is the finest performance of Law's career to date and one which will hopefully get the attention it deserves at the end of next year.
As long as we are talking career bests it is also fair to say that this is my favorite Sodebergh film so far, representing the best marriage of his indie sensibility and blockbuster flair of his filmography. So often his films seem to get lost in his own pretensions, but here he, like Law, lets loose and delivers a wildly entertaining film that is along with Traffic his most important.
There is a lot more to be said about this film, especially things that will be uncovered a second, third, and fourth viewing. Suffice it to say for now, however, that 2013 is off to a rocking start and if this is one of Sodebergh's last films it'll be a shame.