Stephen Soderbergh has been somewhat of a cinematic chameleon in recent years. Nearing his supposed retirement from film, he has explored everything from infectious diseases (Contagion), assassins (Haywire) and male-strippers (Magic Mike). With Side Effects, his stated last feature film, he has forayed into the world of mental illness and psychiatry. Fittingly, he manages to put a distinctly Soderberghian spin on fare that, in lesser hands, would be a ridiculous and muddled mess. Demonstrating a directorial finesse he has accrued over a particularly lengthy cinematic output, he crafts a tight and suspenseful thriller that shows why he is one of our most compelling contemporary filmmakers.
The film starts Rooney Mara as Emily Taylor, a prim New York white collar worker who is awaiting her husband’s pending release from prison. Martin Taylor (Channing Tatum), who we understand as some kind of venture capitalist, is completing his sentence after being thrown in the penn for insider trading. After Martin is released and able to rejoin Emily in their swanky Manhattan loft, she spirals into a crippling depression. During a particularly bad emotional episode she crashes her car into the concrete wall of her parking garage, putting her in the hospital. There, she connects with the charismatic Dr. Jonathan Banks (a perfectly cast Jude Law), a psychiatrist who takes her on as his patient. Emily, who has had a long history of depression, proves to be a tricky case. On the advice of her former doctor (Catherine Zeta-Jones), Dr. Banks puts her on Ablixa, a new drug for depression. The drug is so new, that the ‘side effects’ are not fully know, positioning Emily as a kind of guinea pig. While the drug initially snaps her out of her funk, it ends up having disastrous effects on her relationship.
This is only the starting point for a film that takes many unforeseen twists. This is the kind of film where to reveal too much of the plot would be to spoil to the entire experience, so I’ll say little else. I will say that I did not see many of these twists coming, and it is a tribute to both the writing and Soderbergh’s direction that it held my suspense for the majority of the film. What I imagined would be an exploration, and criticism of, psychiatry and the prescription drug industry ended up being something completely different. Including the kind of out of left field turns that would make M. Night Shyamalan shake his head in disgrace, this is the rare thriller that offers legitimate thrills.
The story is further elevated by Soderbergh’s fine direction. As films like Traffic and the Ocean’s trilogy have shown, the director is a master of creating atmosphere. It is a quality that he puts to good use here, situating us in the clinical and cold world of New York’s upper class. This frames the film exploration of the distinction between image and reality, a thematic preoccupation Soderbergh has shown throughout his oeuvre. Here it is used to provide a criticism of the excesses of the one percent – where an obsession with keeping up appearances is the ultimate mental illness.
The performances are also topnotch, aside from a miscast Channing Tatum whose naturally warm demeanor did not suit the part of an enterprising corporate player. The standout is Mara, who ditches the black eyeliner and motorcycle jackets of her Girl with the Dragon Tattoo character for a prissy professional wardrobe. Called on to be a turns both delicate and weak and at others calculating and manipulative, I bought her performance every step of the way. There is something mesmerizing about her presence that, as of yet, she hasn’t been allowed to show on screen. Law’s natural charisma works well here as the convincing doctor and I was surprised by the range he showed when the character’s life becomes desperate. And Soderbergh favorite Zeta- Jones is in top form, as commanding and smooth talking as ever.
The weakest portion of the film is in the last 30 minutes, which begin to feel like contrived and schlocky as the twists keep piling on. But the film has a slight winking self-awareness in this final bit, a campy sensibility that saves the last act from sinking the whole story. If this is going to be Soderbergh’s last film for a while, he is certainly going out on a good note. The film world will be a lot less interesting without his distinct brand of risk-taking.