“Side Effects”: A chilly, mysterious thriller ends a strange and brilliant career
It’s not enough to say that the absence of human feeling is characteristic of Steven Soderbergh’s films. It’s more that the absence of human feeling is Soderbergh’s principal subject matter, and central to his diagnosis of contemporary society and its pathologies. From his 1989 debut with “Sex, Lies, and Videotape” onward, Soderbergh has seemed divided between a yearning for human contact and a (supposedly) detached and dispassionate belief that it can’t happen anymore and maybe never could.
In Soderbergh’s new movie “Side Effects,” which he says will be his last as a cinema director, all human interaction is mediated by some abstract force, whether that’s money or a commodified and quotation-marked notion of sexuality or an impressive range of psychoactive pharmaceuticals, most notably a fictional antidepressant called “Ablixa” that serves as an enormous plot MacGuffin. This follows such recent Soderbergh films as “Contagion” (scripted, like “Side Effects,” by frequent collaborator Scott Z. Burns), whose true protagonist is arguably a pandemic virus; “Haywire,” in which almost every meeting between characters leads to violence; and “Magic Mike” and “The Girlfriend Experience,” tonally opposite but thematically linked films that depict human sexuality as a marketplace and prostitution as its governing metaphor.