If his statements about his retirement remain true, Side Effects is the last theatrically released film we're ever going to be seeing from Steven Soderbergh. While it will be a damn shame not to be treated to his incredible versatility and bottomless talent as a filmmaker any longer, he sure went out on one hell of a high point. Looking at the trailers and marketing for Side Effects would have you believe that the film was going to be about a young woman named Emily Taylor (played by Rooney Mara) who suffers from an addiction to anti-anxiety medication that she begins taking due to the pressure of her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) being released from prison. With Jude Law cast as her psychiatrist Jonathan Banks, it was given all the appearance of an addiction thriller that would be centered around a lambasting criticism of pharmaceutical companies and modern America's over-reliance on prescribed medication to deal with the dilemmas that occur in our daily lives and the potential risks involved within that.
While this social commentary does serve as a running theme throughout the film, Side Effects is ultimately a world away from what the marketing would lead you to believe it to be. This isn't me criticizing the marketing, but actually the exact opposite. It's hard to really give too many details regarding the plot of the film, as the first act ends with a major twist that sends things careening into a vastly different direction than one would expect and that first shock is nothing in comparison to the ones that bring Emily and Jonathan's story in a vast array of startling and unpredictable directions. The beauty of the marketing is that these days so many studios are afraid that audiences won't come to see their films without knowing everything about them beforehand, so they spoil major twists or show the entire narrative in a two-minute trailer and basically rob the audience of any reason to go and see the film in the first place. The trailers for Side Effects, however, are almost entirely constructed out of events that take place within that first act alone and don't touch on the events that occur after that first big gut punch of a twist.
I won't go into those plot details here, but I will say that Side Effects is the first film in a long time where I had absolutely no idea where it was going to take me next and as a result I was pinned up on the edge of my seat for the entire duration of it. With every jaw-dropping revelation came another twist in the narrative momentum, yet it was constantly pushing forward without slowing down to take a breath and still never felt as though it was rushing too quickly for me to keep up. Written by frequent Soderbergh collaborator Scott Z. Burns (who had actually planned the film to be his feature directorial debut before handing it over to his pal), the sharply written script takes a wonderfully economic approach to layering out all of the many turns that the narrative takes and allows the audience to catch up before switching things again into yet another surprising direction. As I said earlier, I had no idea where this story was going to go from one scene to the next and it made for one of the most exciting and focused viewings I've had in quite some time.
A film like this, one that contains so many shocking turns, enters itself down a path with a lot of room for mistakes, but again it is to Scott's major credit that it never gets too messy or contrived through any of the proceedings. There are surprises galore, but none of it ever feels like a gimmick, nothing that seems to exist purely for the intention of shocking the audience. Every twist is vital for the story as it is measured out and it's the rare kind of twisting narrative that feels natural in its construction, rather than the large majority of "twist films" that seem to have been built purely out of that twist itself and consequently had the rest of the film lazily structured around that big reveal. Burns doesn't build everything up to one big twist at the end or hit you with too many in a row, but rather evens it all out with a kind of rhythm that keeps moving steadily and doesn't let your heart rest but also doesn't fry your brain with too many turns.
Along with the efficiency in the narrative itself, one of the many great things about Side Effects is in the depth that it brings to its characters. The film centers around both Jonathan and Emily, with each getting plenty of spotlight and their own paths to embark down. It's tricky here to go into much detail on the brilliance of this without spoiling anything, but the two characters are polar opposites and the way that Burns and the actors handle their portrayals compliment each other so well while remaining in stark contrast to one another. There's an openness to Law's portrayal in which the actor wears all of his emotions on his sleeve and keeps the audience in his corner and fighting on his side when the chips are stacked against him, while Emily's fragile mental state makes her harder to read and even more fascinating to try and decipher.
I was admittedly not a fan of Mara's Oscar-nominated work in David Fincher's The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo so I went into this a bit wary of how much I was going to be able to admire her work, but she caught me off guard with a truly magnificent performance that I had no idea she was capable of. Suffice it to say I am definitely starting to see what these top directors in the industry are seeing in her, and if she can deliver more work of this caliber than I can easily see her becoming one of my favorites in short time. Her performance is probably the hardest to get into with much detail, but she is so incredibly believable and layered through every facet of her portrayal and her performance only becomes leagues more impressive as more of the plot is revealed and we discover more in regards to her state of mind. It's one of those performances that starts off strong and only gains in excellence when you get to the end and are able to look back on how she built this character from start to finish. Truly phenomenal performances from both of them, one that I expected and one that I had no idea I was in for.
The script and the performances alone could have held Side Effects up to a very high standard, but it's no surprise that Soderbergh doesn't slouch behind the camera and as always his technical prowess is on very fine display here. As he's done for almost all of his films to this point, the director also served as the the cinematographer and film editor on the project and he once again delivered tremendously on both fronts. He shoots at odd angles that keep the viewer somewhat separated from the characters while still being able to properly explore their faces and try to uncover the delicate psychology of each of them, whether it's the obviously troubled Emily, the slowly unraveling Jonathan or any number of the supporting characters, such as Martin's mother who is played by Ann Dowd in an impressive small performance.
Along with Soderbergh's technical work I need to give a ton of recognition to composer Thomas Newman, whose score is so unexpected and yet completely fits what Soderbergh is going for and practically defines the tone of the picture through its distinctive nature and frequent, powerful usage. There's a hypnotic, dreamlike quality to his composition that I found utterly transfixing and put me into a state that I wasn't able to shake until after the credits rolled. Newman is a tremendous composer who has many great scores to his name (his 11 Oscar nominations should give some indication of that), but this may just be his finest to date, or is at least high among his top tier.
If you haven't seen Side Effects yet, I do hope that you seek it out and hope even more so that you're able to go in knowing as little about the plot as you possibly can. The film would work on its own merit regardless of how much you do know, but watching it as fresh as you can will really allow you to be floored time after time through its plethora of unexpected twists and turns. This is a film that I could never predict, and in a lot of ways that makes it a perfect swan song for Soderbergh himself. Here's a director who has always gone against the path set out before him, jumping from Oscar-winning prestige projects to intimate dramas starring adult film actresses to throwback action flicks and pandemic ensemble pieces and rarely ever missing a beat. If this is to be his final picture I will certainly miss him as I truly believe him to be the most versatile and unpredictable director in the business, but it's only fitting that he would go out on a film that you have no idea where it's going to go next.
The private detective genre has become more and more rare to see on screen in the past few decades, and that's a real shame. In an age focused on the oversaturation of 3D, visual effects and the sacrifice of developed plot or characters in exchange for more attention on blowing stuff up, these kinds of gritty and focused crime stories would be a welcome relief. The genre really hit its boom in the noirs of the '30s and '40s, and found a great resurgence in the '70s with classics like Chinatown and The Long Goodbye but we barely see them anymore, so I'm always excited when a new one crops up. Broken City definitely isn't the finest entry into this canon and obviously no one is going to even attempt to compare it to those greats of old, but for someone who is constantly hoping for more of these throwback detective stories I found it to be one that more than satisfied my appetite until the next truly great one comes along.
Director Allen Hughes makes his debut here as an independent helmer, breaking off from his usual collaborations with his brother Albert. The two began their careers with the acclaimed Menace II Society, but have been met with largely negative reactions to their work since then, culminating in their disastrous post-apocalyptic tale Book of Eli, their most recent picture together. Separating from his brother seems to have done a world of good for Allen, as his assured direction here hits an old school rhythm that drives it along with a fluid ease from one scene to the next. Even as the plot gets hampered down somewhat by a final act that throws a lot at the audience in quick succession, Hughes' direction keeps pushing forward with a momentum that carries it strongly.
Aiding in that continual drive is a commanding turn from Mark Wahlberg as the former cop who brings us into this world of political corruption with grave consequences. I've long considered Wahlberg to be an underrated actor and while it's been great to see him stretch his legs more in recent years with comedic turns in The Other Guys and Ted along with one of the strongest performances of his career in the measured and intimate The Fighter, here we see him returning right back into his wheelhouse with a hard-boiled detective who refuses to be put down by his menacing opponent.
The first act opens up the plot as the conventional story of Wahlberg's Billy Taggart taking on a case for Mayor Nicholas Hostetler, played with scene-stealing gusto by the great Russell Crowe. Hostetler wants Taggart to investigate his wife (an underused Catherine Zeta-Jones), whom he suspects of having an affair. With an election coming up in a few days, he needs to know if there is anything that his opponent will be able to use against him to sully his reputation with the people. One could question why he waited until only a few days were left to hire Taggart, but as with most detective stories it's better left just rolling with the punches and not trying to focus too much on slight little ticks in the plot. If you're a person who does have too much trouble with those small malfeasances, Broken City will probably leave you rolling your eyes, especially as things open up for a bit too many twists, turns and contrivances in the final act. For me though, this was a very well-staged throwback to those gritty New York detective stories of the '70s and was elevated by a sterling cast of fine talent.
The script by Brian Tucker (his first script, and one that was on Hollywood's annual Black List a few years ago) sets the stage for a big David and Goliath showdown between Wahlberg and Crowe, and both actors bring their trademark masculine presence to the table in order to create a commanding centerpiece that drives the majority of the action, but the supporting cast is rife with impressive performances in smaller roles that make some memorable impressions. Jeffrey Wright plays the cop angle whose alliance isn't made clear until the very end, Barry Pepper gives stirring emotion to his portrayal of Crowe's electoral competitor and Kyle Chandler makes his mark as Pepper's campaign manager. I also want to give a special mention to Alona Tal, who plays Taggart's secretary and strikes up some really enjoyable chemistry with Wahlberg in order to make their playful relationship something that lasted in my mind. There's a whole subplot involving Taggart's girlfriend, played by the gorgeous Natalie Martinez, that ends up being pretty silly and tonally off but really that's my only major complaint with the film overall.
Broken City doesn't really strive for greatness, but it achieves exactly what it sets out to be. Traditional for sure, but it's in a tradition of films that we don't get to experience much anymore and I was more than happy to be able to embrace one of its kind. Allen Hughes has definitely given me confidence in his ability as a solo filmmaker and I look forward to seeing where he goes with his career next. With a standout supporting turn from Russell Crowe, reliable tough guy command from Mark Wahlberg and precise direction from Hughes, Broken City overcomes its few flaws to make for a gritty, hard-boiled detective thriller that stands out as something worth watching in the early part of the year.
How far does idealism go? Does it require personal sacrifice? Does it conquer any and all familial loyalties? Can personal relationships take precedence, or does everything ultimately play second fiddle to your own moral convictions? These questions and many more ruminate deep within the many assorted characters of Robert Redford's reflective new feature, The Company You Keep. Based on the novel by Neil Gordon, adapted to the screen by Lem Dobbs, the title proves to be the focal point for these characters as one's decision in the opening scene sets into motion an outpour of ramifications for the former members of the Weather Underground activists. Set in the present day, the surviving members of this group have spent the past few decades in hiding, eventually having moved on with their lives and finally gotten to a place where they were able to create families and settle down into a place of normalcy.
As the film opens, one of these members, Sharon Solarz (played with heartbreaking conviction by the great Susan Sarandon), has made the decision to turn herself in after decades of hiding. The story of her and her co-conspirators is taken up by young ace reporter Ben Shepard (Shia LaBeouf), and when he interviews her one of the first questions he asks is why she chose now to come forward and serve the sentence that she has long eluded. Her reasoning? It's no surprise that the guilt became too much to handle, but she explains that her rationale for waiting so long was that she needed the time for her children to be old enough to remember her but not so old that they wouldn't be able to live their normal lives without her. Played with superb chemistry by the simultaneously arrogant and naive LaBeouf against the tragic, hauntingly remorseful Sarandon, this important scene is one of many that delicately hits on that core theme of where your personal cause ends and your responsibility for those outside of yourself begins.
The Company You Keep ponders on how far idealism can go before it gives way to an almost immature narcissism, if it does at all. Is it selfish to sacrifice your family for your personal cause, or is the true selfishness in putting your family above anything and anyone else? These characters are forced to ask this question of themselves and their personal answers drive the momentum of Redford's film and clash them against one another. After discovering the decision that Solarz has made, widowed father Jim Grant (Redford) gets into contact with former comrades long left silent in order to seek out past flame Mimi Lurie (Julie Christie). Lurie is the answer to his need to protect his only daughter, and the plot here is driven by his search to find her, a search that sees him dig up old contacts and force everyone to reflect on the choices they've made.
While Grant, whose real name is revealed to be Nick Sloan, is hunted for his crimes by the FBI, led by Terrence Howard's dogged agent, Redford stages the majority of his film as a series of conversations between these former activists just trying to move on in their new lives. Digging up the history of these characters opens up a lot of old wounds that will never heal, and one of the primary strengths of The Company You Keep is in the way it posits that one can never truly outrun their past. Whether or not they've moved on and settled into new lives, these characters will never escape the sins of their youth and they will always be forced to live with the consequences of their actions. These people see the pain they've caused and that catalyst in the opening scene drives a story that causes them all to take a moment to look inside themselves and come face-to-face with the choices they've made.
Led by Redford and LaBeouf, who proves that there's still plenty of room in modern Hollywood for this kind of hotshot reporter even if it's a dying career field, the director loads his ensemble cast with a plethora of tremendous talent. It's nothing new to state that it's hard in American cinema to find plum roles for veteran actors, but Company You Keep was built with more than enough room to get some of the finest talent of the day into roles that utilize their immense skill and for the most part they more than deliver. I wish that the film had been longer to give a little more development to some of the supporting cast, but still these actors are able to bring an emotional sincerity to their roles that is effective and lasting. The structure of Dobbs' script sees these characters flowing in and out with most of them only lasting a scene or two, but each one manages to leave a mark in their reflective pondering on past transgressions. Redford's cast is supremely capable here, effectively conveying their internal anguish without ever pouring too much of it out on the surface to devolve this more muted story into theatrics.
Along with LaBeouf and Sarandon, the one who stands out in particular is Julie Christie, unsurprisingly making the most of her rare screen turn. When the characters played by her and Redford finally come together, all of those powerful themes come to a clash in a personal debate that sees both of them pushing against one another in service of their beliefs. While most of the characters in The Company You Keep are filled with remorse over their past, Christie's Mimi has gone the opposite path and never given up her old ways. She still fights for the cause and Christie plays her resilience with a captivating determination that refuses to back down to Sloan's emotional ploys. In this scene he looks at her and tells her that he can see her true self no matter how much she tries to hide it, that he sees it in her eyes and Christie's natural gifts allow her to make that moment absolutely believable with the way we (and Sloan) can see her soul right through them.
Redford really made his name working in the paranoia/political thrillers of the '70s, delivered with great precision by directors like Sydney Pollack and Alan J. Pakula. The Company You Keep is undeniably a throwback to this lost genre of filmmaking (complete with that ace journalist protagonist, a character type we unfortunately never see anymore), but its reflective nature is deceptively employed over a plot that would more traditionally call for adrenaline-pumping sequences of action and suspense. It's the thematic depth that Redford concerns himself more with than anything else, building the suspense out of these character interactions as opposed to quick-cutting action. It's a film that feels very much rooted in a lost era rather than the modern day, a move that further compliments the fact that these characters can never escape that decade where they made those decisions whose consequences would reverberate for the rest of their days. Redford also throws in a nice little callback to his starring role in Pollack's Three Days of the Condor, as his final scene here has him wearing the same outfit that he did in that excellent picture.
You've just created a film, widely considered to be your magnum opus, encompassing a scope as epic as depicting the literal creation of the universe and the afterlife. So, what do you do next? If you're Terrence Malick, you take things in a more intimate direction with a domestic psychodrama detailing the coming together and falling apart of an American man and French woman. Played by Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko, with support from Rachel McAdams as a former flame and Javier Bardem as a troubled priest, the drama at the core of To the Wonder is semi-autobiographical for the filmmaker and yet it's ultimately just a metaphor for his more universal themes of faith and love. Played without a traditional narrative structure and mostly told in whispered voiceover inserted atop handheld footage of the lovers in the throws of emotion, To the Wonder could easily be the director's most polarizing work to date, but for this viewer it worked like a charm.
Marking only the sixth feature in his 40-year career, Malick's infamous habit of taking many years to produce his films has taken a sharp turn, as To the Wonder's release comes only two years after his previous effort, The Tree of Life. One couldn't be blamed for having worry that his quick turnaround would result in something less inspired or comprehensive, but to my surprise I found To the Wonder to be his most emotionally potent work to date. Watching it, you get the feeling that this is a cinematic journey Malick had been sitting on for a long time and after he got the epic saga of The Tree of Life out of his system he was finally able to tell it. Of course, this being Malick, things were never going to be told by way of conventional narrative and at this point in his career the plots of his films have become practically inconsequential, serving as only the most basic of platforms for the cinematic poetry that he lays out on top of it all.
Frankly speaking, this either works for you or it doesn't and at this point in the director's career, you know what you're getting when going into a Malick film. With the minimal dialogue, frequent use of voiceover, breathtaking cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki (who worked with the director on Tree of Life) and swelling classical score, To the Wonder doesn't mark anything new for the director and there's nothing unexpected here but this is where his reclusive nature becomes a benefit to his canon. In recent years he has become much more prolific and right now he has at least two more films that we are apparently going to be seeing within the next few years, and I do worry that soon his incredibly unique way of filmmaking will start to feel tired and repetitive but for now each of his films remain a breath of fresh air. To the Wonder doesn't see him go in any new direction, but rather continues him on the path that he has always been on, as with each film he becomes less concerned with traditional filmmaking and much more focused on eliciting emotional response and conveying thematic depth through a sensory approach.
I'm sure one can interpret To the Wonder in many different ways and some viewers have left perplexed as to what it all means, but for me it was rather straightforward. As he did with The Tree of Life, Malick uses a domestic drama as a metaphor to enhance a throughline of universal themes. Those themes are delivered primarily through Bardem's priest character, who spends his time wandering directionless and ruminating on whether god has left us or if he's waiting to be found. Presenting that question on the absence of god unfolds a greater depth to the dismantling of the relationship between Affleck and Kurylenko's characters, perhaps positing that with his absence also comes the absence of love. To the Wonder marks Malick's first film to take place entirely in the modern day, and it should come as no surprise to anyone that it's this modern setting that provides the environment for their romantic unraveling.
As the film begins, the two lovebirds are as free as can be, frolicking as pure and innocent as children through wide open nature. They play in the sand and waves on the beach (not coincidentally the setting for Malick's afterlife in his previous effort, perhaps foreshadowing the eventual outcome of their romance) and it's when they return to the modern suburbia that things start to come apart. Malick has always been an artist who has clashed with the modern nature of man, and To the Wonder is another representation of that, as one could leave with the feeling that he thinks there is no more room for that kind of pure love and freedom in this modern world. It's a rather harsh perspective, but Malick depicts it in a way that still manages to capture and illuminate the beauty that is out there within our grasp if we can only take the time to embrace it. It's free in the open air, ready for us all, if only we can break from the cages that our modern world has locked us in.
Along with his years in the editing room putting together his films, another aspect of Malick's filmmaking that has become infamous is his refusal to allow the status of his stars to get in the way of his storytelling. Malick won't ever let his actors take precedence over his thematic journey, and as a result many of the biggest names in the industry have found themselves working on his films only to see their parts end up on the cutting room floor. To the Wonder is no different, as notable actors Rachel Weisz, Michael Sheen, Amanda Peet, Barry Pepper and Jessica Chastain all shot footage that is nowhere to be seen in the finished product. However, this is ultimately a blessing, as Wonder is such an intimate tale that is focused on a quartet of figures played out very well by his talented cast. Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams and Javier Bardem all turn in solid performances, but it's Olga Kurylenko who really stands out here as one of the strongest performances to emerge from the director's work to date.
Through Affleck's commanding physical presence, Malick keeps the film grounded to the earth but it's with Kurylenko that he takes it to a more effervescent place and she really soars with his guidance. An actress who has mostly spent her career so far going the traditional post-model route of starring as eye candy in action films, Kurylenko gives a performance here that shows she has so much more to offer the world than what she's been allowed to give. A stunning collaboration of artist and muse, there is a purity to Kurylenko's portrayal that is frankly undefinable but captures an utterly enchanting beauty that brings the audience with her on a wide emotional spectrum. When she's free as a bird, enraptured in the the throes of love and the wonder of life, your heart soars along with her and I found myself stuck with a wide smile on my face. Yet when the romance turns and she's locked inside her domestic cage, broken and stripped of that love, your heart breaks along with hers and there's a brutal tragedy that overwhelms the emotional palette. It's an absolutely stunning performance that magnificently captures and compliments the poetic, ethereal quality of Malick's filmmaking approach.