Some movies sneak up on you and have ad campaigns that reveal little to nothing about their content. The deceptively simple poster and trailer for The Sixth Sense is a great example of under-selling and a rare case of the studio understanding that, when it comes to promoting a film like that, less is more.
A similar approach is being made by Warner Brothers with Side Effects, the latest thriller from director Steven Soderbergh. Even with a cast that includes Jude Law and Channing Tatum, the film is getting an unheralded release and the promotional materials have been vague and mysterious. Hopefully, this will draw in curious audiences who don’t need trailers to summarize the entire plot, as most coming attractions previews tend to do. The less you know going into the theater about Side Effects, the better. All you need to know is that this is the year’s first great thriller and not to be missed.
Rooney Mara (the star of the American remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) plays a sweet but troubled young woman whose life has been plagued by a series of bad incidents including a miscarriage and the incarceration of her husband (played by Tatum in a small, supporting role). When her doctor (played by Law) prescribes her some new medication, the initially promising results come with some scary consequences.
Here’s a movie that evokes Rosemary’s Baby in its first half, as Mara gives an unforgettable portrait of an isolated, lonely soul and her internal suffering; as in Dragon Tattoo, her decision to underplay (whereas lesser actresses would have gone over the top) demonstrates what an intelligent actress she is. This is a performance that is worthy of mention for awards consideration at year’s end. Law is superb, as is everyone else, in an impressive ensemble cast that includes Catherine Zeta-Jones (who’s terrific), Vinessa Shaw (the only actress to ever work with Stanley Kubrick and Rodney Dangerfield), Mamie Gummer, and Laila Robins (fondly remembered as Steve Martin’s wife in Planes, Trains and Automobiles).
Soderbergh is a fascinating and wildly versatile filmmaker who easily ping pongs between making big, audience pleasing studio films and personal, challenging fare. Here, his one artsy touch is having a scene take place in French without subtitles. He also, as in his recent Contagion, shows the first and most crucially revealing scene in the story last.
The surprises in store are big and shocking, as the screenplay rewards the patience of the audience after a creepy, unsettlingly quiet and slow first act. Once all is revealed and the truth is in full view, you’ll be glad you watched carefully. You won’t get any spoilers from me, though it’s difficult to discuss the film’s shortcomings, as they involve the narrative secrets. Without giving anything away, the full reveal of Zeta-Jones’ character involves a detail that feels awfully familiar to movies made in the 1990s (you’ll see what I mean), and it felt like the biggest misstep here.
Aside from his upcoming HBO movie about Liberace, Soderbergh claims this is his last movie. I seriously doubt it, as he’s too young and too bold a cinematic experimenter to turn his back on filmmaking for good.
This is the man who gave us Sex, Lies and Videotape, the five-hour CHE, Out of Sight, the Danny Ocean trilogy, Traffic, a slew of small but brilliant art movies AND Magic Mike! His work has been so consistently good, richly creative and well received, it would make little sense for him to end his winning streak now… but if I’m wrong, he went out with one of his best films.
★ ★ ★ ★
Rated R / 115 Min.