Note: This essay contains light spoilers, like lesbians.
Have you ever checked out the IMDB page for Steven Soderbergh? If anyone needed proof that the man is a national treasure, all you have to do is look at his creative output over the past two decades. Since kicking off his career in a big way with 1989’s sex, lies and videotape, he’s directed Out of Sight, The Limey, Erin Brockovich, Bubble, Full Frontal, Haywire, Solaris, King of the Hill, Contagion, Magic Mike, The Girlfriend Experience, The Informant!, a two-part movie about Che Guevara and three Ocean’s movies, of which I will always defend Twelve as being the best. It gets better: As a producer, he’s also behind We Need to Talk About Kevin, Solitary Man, Syriana, Michael Clayton, Good Night and Good Luck, Far From Heaven, The Daytrippers, Criminal, Keane, A Scanner Darkly, I’m Not There, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired.
During this time period, Soderbergh is unrivaled in the intensity of his creative output, so much so that Traffic and Erin Brockovich competed for Best Picture in the same year –movies of vastly different genres that were both critical and commercial successes. For the past decade, Soderbergh has consistently churned out two movies every year without sacrificing quality or his trademark cinematic squirreliness. One of my favorite things about watching Soderbergh as a director is to see what he can get away with. Soderbergh sold America Magic Mike as a male stripper movie but gave them a low-key indie drama, featuring a shockingly soulful Channing Tatum. America came to see him take off his clothes, but Soderbergh proved to them he could act.
The same goes for a lot of films in his catalogue. Audiences came to see The Girlfriend Experience to see a porn star. Soderbergh gave them one of the saddest movies ever made about sex. Contagion kills off most of its very famous leads and strands you in the middle of China for a large part of its runtime. You came to see celebrities? Soderbergh ices one of them in the trailer. His films break the rules of cinema. Haywire films action in realtime. Bubble casts non-actors in key dramatic roles, many of which can’t act in the traditional ways we’re used to. Bubble’s lead worked at a KFC before he tapped her to be in his film. The Informant! achieves a Fincher-like distance from its characters, while filming some of the most likeable actors in Hollywood.
Soderbergh’s movies often piss me off, and I downright hated Bubble—which provoked me in ways I didn’t like. I’m not alone. His movies often get terrible Cinemascores, and Solaris was slapped with a rare F grade. Although audiences sometimes unite in hating something that’s truly bad, Cinemascore grades tend to indicate that an audience got what they were expecting. When Killing Me Softly received an F last Fall, it’s because America turned up for a gangster flick and director Andrew Dominik gave them a l When Killing Me Softly received an F last Fall, it’s because America turned up for a gangster flick and director Andrew Dominik gave them a violent indie film with lyrical overtones. Soderbergh movies always do that. They take the movie that you were expecting, shatter it into pieces and give you something else.
Soderbergh challenges our expectations and often gives us movies much better than what we might have expected, like going to see the new Saw movie and actually getting The Cabin in the Woods. I didn’t expect much out of Magic Mike or Erin Brockovich, but he gave me the best version of both of those movies. I usually find Julia Roberts’ films to be irritating (because all of her movies end up being about how great she is), and Erin Brockovich was ballsy enough to comment on her own star discourse. The movie starts out as being exactly that, like Norma Rae on crack, until Aaron Eckhart calls the film out for it. We expected the movie to be shouty and self-righteous and it was, but in the service of an actual story. It’s about a narcissist learning to care for other people, understanding the value of her humanity.
Off the screen, most of his movies don’t work. The Hamlet II send-up of Erin Brockovich achieves comedic gold just by reading the script—because of out of the context of the film, the lines sound ludicrous. When I saw Side Effects this weekend, which Soderbergh promised will be his last feature film, I couldn’t help but be struck by how ridiculous it all was. Side Effects is an especially over-the-top episode of Revenge crossed with the most Brian De Palma film ever. It’s complete with double-crosses, triple-crosses, placeboes, red herrings, lies, conspiracy subplots, tabloid murders, soap opera melodramas and more plot twists than I thought a two-hour movie could handle—all set to a deliciously creepy Thomas Newman score. Roger Ebert puts it best: “Imagine music for a sorcery-related plot and then dial it down to ominous forebodings.” It’s a great metaphor for the film as a whole.
It’s on-the-nose and very Peter Travers, but the only way to describe Side Effects is that it’s totally batshit crazy, like Soderbergh’s The Marriage of Maria Braun. I could feel the audience getting restless as the movie they came to see slowly slipped away—a message movie about prescription drug culture—and ended in Catherine Zeta-Jones and Rooney Mara making out, for reasons you have to see to believe. During THAT scene, the audience was clenched like a fist, and I could tell that half of them were pissed as hell. I was surprised there were only two walkouts. It’s not just that the movie “goes there.” It stays there. If not for there, there would be no film.
Sapphic kisses aside, the thing that makes Side Effects already one of the best movies of the year is the joy that Soderbergh brings to the film. Even if the film exists in another galaxy, it’s clear that Soderbergh is having the time of his life with it, cackling at what curveball he can throw the audience next. You can imagine him saying, “Channing Tatum and Jude Law are flesh-eating robots sent from Mars to destroy the president? Why not? Let’s put that in there, too!” That doesn’t happen, but with all the things that do take place in Side Effects, it’s not out of the realm of possibility. When I recapped the plot with a friend after it ended, we kept laughing—right along with Soderbergh. His exuberance is infectious.
There are a lot of reasons that Soderbergh gets away with the kinds of movies Lee Daniels can’t. Soap opera feels controlled and masterful at Soderbergh’s command, the high camp offset by the coldness of his cameras. Soderbergh knows that great cinema takes place at the level of contradictions—that push and pull that threatens to tear a movie apart. When you watch David Fincher’s The Social Network, the finest film of the decade so far and a spiritual cousin to Side Effects, you tune into a battle between savagery and humanity, just good and evil but where those concepts even fit in today’s society. In Side Effects, being human means giving up part of your soul.
Soderbergh himself has refused to do that with mainstream cinema—a director not afraid to take risks and will be rewarded for it by going out at the top of his game. After spending years trying to get his Liberace movie funded (and being told it was “too gay”), Soderbergh is moving away from Hollywood to experiment with forms that will allow him greater expression. Behind the Candelabra, starring Michael Douglas as the flamboyant singer, will air on HBO this year, just as Soderbergh voyages into the great artistic unknown. Soderbergh claims that he will be doing television and theatre, but no matter where goes from here, we haven’t heard the last of him.