I have been spending some time reading Steven Soderbergh’s filmography, which apparently has come to an end with his new thriller, Side Effects. The “apparently” may require some emphasis, considering that Soderbergh is a habitual violator of the line between fiction and reality. Nevertheless, if we provisionally take him at his word, a major American filmmaker has just quit. This might not be quite as big a deal as Philip Roth’s retirement, but Soderbergh is only 50.

That he would become major was not always obvious, despite an initial success that was brilliant to the point of being disastrous. In early 1989, with Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Soderbergh inadvertently transformed the Sundance Film Festival from a retreat for regional do-gooders into a frenzied auction pit, while giving Harvey Weinstein and Miramax the means to turn “independent film” into a marketing category. A few months later, Sex, Lies, and Videotape won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, confirming Soderbergh as the leading new brand in lower-budget American cinema and exposing him to pitiless scrutiny from the likes of Spike Lee, who declared that his own Do the Right Thing (also in competition at Cannes) was far more worthy of the prize.

Lee had a point. Compared with Do the Right Thing, Soderbergh’s four-character adultery-and-neurosis drama was either astonishingly well-crafted and mature or else dispiritingly timid and self-enclosed. There was a case to be made for Sex, Lies, and Videotape, but it might have begun with the observation that its suddenly famous writer-director was all of 26.

A first-time filmmaker of around that age had once gone on to direct The Magnificent Ambersons. Soderbergh, by contrast, flailingly overreached with his second feature, Kafka, whose faults included just about everything except timidity. Now typed as a would-be profligate auteur (at a time when Michael Cimino was still in the stocks for Heaven’s Gate), Soderbergh performed a kind of penance by next directing King of the Hill, a quiet, modestly budgeted coming-of-age drama set in the Depression-era Midwest. It was a good film of real substance, and proof that producers could afford to trust him, but it also left people wondering whether this auteur had any personality of his own.

The answer began to emerge with The Underneath (1995), the first of the crime thrillers that have wound through Soderbergh’s career until the present, and Side Effects. A loose contemporary adaptation of the 1949 Robert Siodmak noir Criss Cross, The Underneath revealed Soderbergh as an artist who drew inspiration from older films but kept his borrowings in check behind more important traits, such as a liking for fractured chronology, brisk pacing, sharply credible vernacular dialogue and emotional sinkholes. His view of the characters was now much like his images. The compositions, though as legible as graphics, were deepened with light, color and movement, so the eye wanted to linger rather than race on. The people, though observed from a slightly skeptical distance, were given an almost tangible pulse (often a desperate one), so the mind did not turn away from thoughts of real bodies in real trouble.

In their different modes, Out of Sight, The Limey, The Good German, The Informant! and even the Ocean’s Eleven series have played out variations of this crime-thriller theme (bearing in mind that Soderbergh’s version of noir sometimes comes in chartreuse). The films I’ve just mentioned are romantic, ethnographic, nostalgic, satiric and frankly commercial, but they all connect you to characters who are coping with (or committing) duplicity and sweating their way through bouts of guilt and self-justification in situations where the pressures of money and class are palpable.

What these films do not do is stage an open debate about power in their imagined worlds. The exception is Traffic—Soderbergh’s big Oscar winner—which is notable for standing at the intersection of his crime pictures and another principal strand in his work: social-issue films.

Soderbergh’s work in the latter category includes Erin Brockovich, Contagion, the unjustly neglected K Street television series and (once again) Side Effects. Throw in some of the films on which he’s served as producer—Syriana; Good Night, and Good Luck; Michael Clayton—and the list becomes impressive. Add his massive, two-part Che (a film that’s perhaps comparable only to Olivier Assayas’s Carlos) and Soderbergh emerges as the most socially engaged American fiction filmmaker of his generation, except, I suppose, for Spike Lee.

It’s often said that Soderbergh’s career has been characterized by his back-and-forth between studio productions and personal films, convention and experiment. True enough, he’s jumped quickly from Ocean’s Eleven or The Informant! to the likes of Full Frontal and The Girlfriend Experience—pictures that not only expect a smaller audience but also tease you with self-reflexive gestures, as if they were a metaphysical elevation of the blooper reel, dignifying the moment when the film crew blunders into capturing its own image in a mirror. This alternation between Warner Bros. luxe and beyond-Miramax independence has been another constant with Soderbergh, though the swings have perhaps not been all that wild. Even his studio pictures can have a handmade quality, with Soderbergh serving as his own cinematographer and editor and playing quizzical games with the audience. The decisive factor in his work is the way he’s delved intelligently into his preferred genres of crime dramas and social-issue films—as an entertainer, an experimenter and a respectful student of the past—and occasionally merged the two.

Which brings me to the film he’s announced as his finale. 

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Side Effects originated a decade ago not with Soderbergh but with Scott Z. Burns, who wrote the screenplay and negotiated to direct it. Years of failure were required to turn the property into un film de Soderbergh. As Burns explained at a preview screening at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, the financing for Side Effects lagged so long as he was at the helm. Producers wanted a more bankable director—Soderbergh, for instance, even though he had suffered the embarrassment of being dismissed from Moneyball. Meanwhile, Burns and Soderbergh had been working together on a more commercial project, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. When that, too, fell through (another embarrassment), Soderbergh was left casting about for work and remembered Burns’s script. It was in the vein of their 2011 collaboration, Contagion—the sort of thing Soderbergh knew how to do.

I relate this history because its frustrations hint at some possible reasons for Soderbergh’s wanting to quit the business, but also because it’s full of accidents, and the screenplay of Side Effects makes room for none. Or, rather, the screenplay first allows for its characters’ lives to be determined by every manner of accident and then wrenches these errors, oversights, coincidences and contingencies into a machine-tooled pattern. With shivers of horror and delight, Side Effects systematically negates in its story the bumbling process by which it came to be made.

To explain as much of the plot as is fair: someone in New York City has died violently. We know this from the start because Soderbergh’s camera scans the apartment buildings in upper Manhattan and then floats through the one window out of all those thousands where you can see pools of blood on the floorboards. The apartment also contains a large gift package—the mystery, you might say—which remains for us to unwrap.

Soderbergh then jumps back in time to introduce the characters who are presumably implicated in the bloodshed. Emily (Rooney Mara) is first seen as a pair of lips in a car’s rearview mirror—a fragment, an appearance, to be self-studied and cosmeticized. Martin (Channing Tatum) enters in a tracking shot, seen from behind, as a cropped head and broad muscular back—a generic slab of masculinity in motion, to be temporarily constricted in prison garb. Martin has been serving time in jail for insider trading and will soon be released. Emily, his wife, has been waiting for him for four years, in circumstances less posh than the Greenwich mansion to which she’d grown accustomed.

Next to appear on screen is Jonathan (Jude Law), who first appears shielded by layers of official privilege: draped in a doctor’s white coat, seated behind an interviewer’s table, assigned the protection of a city cop who answers to him as if to a superior officer. Jonathan is a psychiatrist—a good one, to judge by the way he immediately understands the Haitian immigrant who has been brought to him under arrest. Jonathan calms the man (in Creole, no less) while instructing the cop, with perhaps a touch of smugness, about the existence of perfectly reasonable differences in cultural norms.

I can tell you that Jonathan—smooth, quick, self-confident enough to cut corners—agrees to treat Emily privately after she is admitted to the hospital with injuries caused by gunning her car into a wall. I can also tell you that when the birdlike little patient with the huge, sad eyes continues to flutter and droop, despite all her husband’s hugs and the antidepressants she’s being fed, Jonathan consults the movie’s fourth principal character, Victoria (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who strides in wearing oversize eyeglasses, a nicely tailored dark jacket and a quasi-cynical smile. She is the Greenwich-based psychiatrist who had previously treated Emily. Try switching her to Ablixa, Victoria suggests. Sometimes patients respond well to a drug just because it’s the latest thing advertised on TV.

What happens afterward, when the Ablixa apparently causes spooky side effects like sleepwalking, I can’t tell you for fear of giving away the Soderbergh-Burns game. It’s enough to say that the unfolding events are and are not about profit-hungry pharmaceutical companies, arrogant and neglectful doctors, and the submerged resentments of a small woman, raised without money, for a big man who has made and lost plenty of it. Jonathan will be stripped of all his protective trappings and have to struggle feverishly for a scrap of authority; Emily will be scrubbed of her cosmetics, to the raw skin, and then scramble to reassemble a version of herself. 

If its chain of visual motifs and classically efficient shooting scheme help qualify Side Effects as a Soderbergh picture, so do the large, self-assured performances. Soderbergh likes actors who can swagger a little (such as Julia Roberts). He encourages them to be slightly bigger than life and helps them get away with it, to their pleasure and the audience’s. In Side Effects, Jude Law at one point sputters and reels through expressions of shock, puzzlement and triumph within all of five seconds, like a quick-change artist. Rooney Mara, making good on her birdlike image, works herself up so furiously at another point that she seems to rise off the floor. The elegant joke, in both cases, is that appearances are always doubtful. In Law’s scene, Jonathan is insisting excitedly that clear photographic evidence of his guilt is really proof of his innocence. In Mara’s scene, Emily protests violently that she’s entirely sane, which merely persuades the keepers in the bughouse that she’s deeply disturbed. 

After many twists, turns and mechanical clicks, all the false appearances fall away and the true picture comes together with astonishing precision—which changes what, exactly? There are no lessons learned in Side Effects, and after the not-so-happy ending both the psychopharmacological business and the financial services industry will surely go on as before. All that cleverness expended by the characters, all that scuffling required of the filmmakers, and in the end the world is undisturbed.

Side Effects is a wonderfully entertaining movie, made by a director in absolute command of his craft, but it gives off a slight odor of mothballs and futility. Neither a bright innovation nor a compelling revival of a genre from the past, neither a big studio production nor a small personal film, it simply passes the time well, and leaves you feeling not at all bad that none of its victims were innocent. If this is where Soderbergh’s quarter-century traversal of the American film business has led him, then maybe he’s right to stop, at least for a while. Maybe it should give us pause, too.

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February in New York City brings the Documentary Fortnight program at the Museum of Modern Art, which this year included the world premiere of a remarkable project titled Your Day Is My Night by Lynne Sachs. In January 2011, Sachs began working with middle-aged and elderly residents of shift-bed apartments in New York’s Chinatown; immigrants are jammed into closetlike shared rooms, and the beds are in use around the clock. Sachs gained the confidence of these people, heard their stories, assisted as they worked up monologues about their pasts and helped shape the results into a film, which features performances by several of the subjects themselves. Made with collaborators including cinematographer Sean Hanley and composer Stephen Vitiello, it’s a strikingly handsome, meditative work: a mixture of reportage, dreams, memories and playacting, which immerses you in an entire world that you might unknowingly pass on the corner of Hester Street, unable to guess what’s behind the fifth-floor windows.

In our October 3, 2011, issue, Stuart Klawans reviewed Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, “Agents of Destruction.”