If Side Effects really is to be noted auteur Steven Soderbergh’s swan song, and that’s the scuttlebutt, he could not have picked a better film to go out on. Not to suggest Side Effects is a masterpiece, though it is very good, but because Soderbergh’s detractors have often cited his films – particularly the more indie fare – for their aloofness and chilly ambience, their disregard for human interest for attentiveness to playing with genre form. Indeed, Side Effects fits the bill, so icy I would imagine that if these were the old days of projectors you could go on up to the booth and chip away at the frozen film stock.
Our entry point to the film is twenty-eight year old Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) whose immaculately suited-up husband (Channing Tatum) has just left prison after a stint for insider trading. Each character assures the other that it takes time to re-adjust, but Emily, it would seem, is all out of whack. We know this because she climbs behind the wheel of her car and guns it directly into the wall of a parking garage.
This lands her in the hospital with a concussion where she is greeted by a kindly psychologist, Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), perceptive enough to know Emily is masking deep-seated mental health issues. Even so, he discharges her on the promise she will visit him at his office once a week. She does, and he dispenses her pharmaceuticals left and right. So many names of pills – some real, some invented – are dropped throughout this hour-and-a-quarter film that its rhythm nearly becomes comedic, like one of the innumerable brilliant scenes in the just-shuttered sitcom 30 Rock when the memorable Dr. Spaceman (pronounced: spuh-chem-in) offers a couple clients handfuls of random pills: “Some reds? Some yellows? Just got some purples in from Peru.”
Emily’s depression, however, after a brief fling with improvement, quickly advances, which Soderbergh, ever the craftsman, conveys with the simplest but most demonstrative of flourishes – Emily’s hair whipping in the breeze of an advancing subway train, a close-up of a knife chopping peppers. In the early parts of the film, he signals what is coming, as if it is unavoidable, and the film’s first twist is most shocking for its impassivity.
We will not divulge it, but suffice it to say Soderbergh cagily casts The Sexiest Man Alive in a role that is essentially window dressing. It’s laugh out loud funny when you think about it afterwards.
From there, Soderbergh and his screenwriter Scott Z. Burns begin the process of transitioning the primary baton from Emily to Jonathan, as his prescription methods come under fire and we realize he is both feeding his comely wife (Vinessa Shaw) pills off her own and performing a little medicinal research on the side for extra scratch. But he is positively charming compared to Emily’s former psychiatrist in Connecticut, Dr. Victoria Siebert, played by a scarily remote Catherine Zeta-Jones (you never, not for a second, consider this woman is not up to no good) and lit by Soderbergh in such a way to drain all the color from her face and render her as a vampire with a prescription pad.
Jonathan, convinced something is rotten in the state of Denmark, sets out to prove it. He may or may not be wrongfully accused and the film, while never hiding the fact that it is clearly hiding relevant information from us, sets off on the jaunty path of switchbacks and reversals, probably to the point that its believability wanes. Then again, Soderbergh, as stated above, enjoys messing with genre and I dare say the overstuffed third act is him winking at us from just off camera.
Jude Law does fine work here, though his character as written resists the empathy typically associated with the Man Done Wrong role. We never quite get behind his curtain aside from the barest of essentials and I think Soderbergh wants it this way. Rising star Rooney Mara, meanwhile, is fabulous, letting us in, pushing us away, making us think we have the drop on her and then revealing another hidden layer and all without resorting to sudden and unbelievable changes in her inherent persona. She earns the last shot of the film and it is a doozy.
Side Effects initially comes across like a morality play before delving deeply into thriller territory, but its intentions are never lost even as reveals are thrown at us with gleeful abandon. This is because the reveals leave us wondering if we ever really knew these people at all.
You can’t help but wonder if those shrouded in the haze of medications wonder the same thing about themselves.