“Side Effects,” a twisty-turny psychodrama and thriller, will occupy a special place in the Steven Soderbergh oeuvre. Since his highly influential debut “sex, lies, and videotape” single-handedly launched the American independent film revival, his body of work has included 26 films that have covered an absurd amount of topical ground, nevermind all the genres he’s dipped into. If all goes according to plan, “Side Effects,” will be the last Steven Soderbergh movie ever released theatrically. In some ways this puts an almost unfair amount of pressure on the complex little thriller, especially considering that the film may be better suited for premium cable than his upcoming HBO Liberace biopic “Behind the Candelabra.” The picture’s conspiratorial late-night tone and fleshy after hours luridness was practically built for watching at night, when our parents think we’ve gone off to bed (think ’80s films directed by folks like Adrian Lyne). Like much of his recent output, “Side Effects” is a somewhat slight genre exercise, but given that it’s Soderbergh, it’s stylistically unparalleled, totally gripping and occasionally devastating in its emotional presentation thanks to its two leads Rooney Mara and Jude Law.
First, a word of warning: the marketing materials, including a couple of intriguing trailers, have been incredibly misleading when it comes to the actual content of “Side Effects.” This is probably a good thing, as the surprises of the film (and there are many) hit with an additional wallop because you weren’t expecting them. Nor were you expecting the film, as a whole, to be as textured and simultaneously piquant in some of its intrigue and depictions of sexuality.
Tantalizingly, “Side Effects” opens with a shot that snakes through a midsized Manhattan apartment. A model sailboat sits propped on a chair, the light in the kitchen hums effortlessly like someone has been preparing a meal, and a trail of blood speckles the floor. The movie then flashes back three months, to explain how things arrived at that gore-splattered scene. When “Side Effects” begins in earnest, young Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara, in her first post-‘Dragon Tattoo‘ role) is anxiously waiting for her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) to be released from prison. A white-collar criminal, he was busted for insider trading on the day of their posh Connecticut wedding, upending her entire life. She now works at a Manhattan marketing firm and meets his release with a combination of excitement and dread.
When Martin is finally released (obviously there’s not a prison on earth that can contain Channing Tatum), Emily spirals downward. Constantly on edge and emotionally distressed, Emily misses work, and breaks down at functions meant to get Martin back on track professionally. This culminates in an eerie sequence, elegantly put together by Soderbergh for maximum, bone-crunching effect, where she drives her car into the wall of her parking garage. Emily’s desperate for help anywhere she can find it, and since she can’t afford her therapist in Connecticut (played brilliantly by Catherine Zeta-Jones), she instead sees Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law, continuing his career resurgence after a few iffy years).
Banks seems more morally questionable, realistic and complicated; a well-layered and complex character who’s neither hero or villain. He’s got a family to provide for (the underused Vinessa Shaw plays his wife), but his industry is such that short cuts are rewarded. In one of his introductory scenes he is wooed into taking part in a trial for a giant pharmaceutical company that nets him a large additional annual revenue stream, but he still remains engaged with his patients in a meaningful way. He works with Emily to find a regimen that will best help her out of the doldrums – a combination of therapy sessions and prescription pills. It’s just that some of the pills lead to side effects like nauseau and a sense of disorientation.
But “Side Effects” quickly upends itself in unexpected ways, turning into a labyrinth of betrayals and mysterious corner-turns that will leave you deeply engaged (and make a note now: pay attention throughout). When medication leads to a murder, the entire movie, which up until this point had been focused on Emily to an almost unnerving degree, mutates completely, shifting the focus to be squarely on Law’s Dr. Banks character. In a way, the film goes from being a queasy psychosexual thriller about the dangers of pharmaceutical therapy and the internal struggle of a depressed young woman, to something more along the lines of a rousing whodunnit procedural, with Banks doggedly working to find the answers to this complex puzzle.
Written by Scott Z. Burns, who previously collaborated with Soderbergh on 2011’s “Contagion,” “Side Effects” is another thriller that plays within genre parameters, but is grounded deeply inside the corporate machinations on which the story is founded (in this case the pharmaceutical industry). The two are clear companion pieces, sharing that ruddy, autumnal visual style, a major role from Law, and a general unease about the pills we pop to make ourselves feel better. Whereas “Contagion,” though, for all its global horror, had a singularly optimistic worldview (that we as a nation, and what’s more – the government! – would end a pandemic), “Side Effects” is pretty grim. It’s a movie about the human condition that paints us all as scheming, greedy, lying parasites, looking for the quickest shortcut to feel better, sexier, stronger than we actually are. It’s not off the mark, but it can feel pessimistic.
Thankfully, there is enough weight to the performances (which are surprisingly emotionally resonant), particularly from the two female leads (Mara once again demonstrating why she’s one of the most exciting new female leads onscreen) and enough witty stylistic flourishes from Soderbergh (again acting as his own cinematographer) to keep you constantly invested (a nimble, occasionally jaw-dropping score by Thomas Newman doesn’t hurt either). Law also makes for an unexpectedly compelling and complicated lead; a morally nebulous figure with deep metaphoric value who channels the audience’s sympathy even when he’s navigating through difficult options of right and wrong to get him through his quandry.
If there’s a problem, it’s that, particularly in the third act, the twists of “Side Effects” start to knot up a little, leaving some occasionally abstruse leaps in logic that gnarl the narrative. This doesn’t completely derail the movie, because it’s so provocative, but it does make it a story sometimes a little too clever for its own good. Which is a shame. Instead of being emotionally devastating or thought provoking, it’s just kind of befuddling. Then again, it’s aware of his b-movie confines, though executed with perhaps a bit more emotional distance than most. Ultimately, “Side Effects” is a bit of a trifle, but an engaging sexy little whodunit directed by one of the great American auteurs of the past couple of decades. [B]