Director: Steven Soderbergh
Starring: Rooney Mara, Jude Law, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Channing Tatum
“It’s the culture,” one character insists. He’s referring to the financial corporate culture which resulted in what he hopes is his temporary exile, but the line just as easily applies to other aspects of the world Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects explores. It’s a world where there is a magic pill for every ailment, a first resort pushed by medical professionals who have a vested financial interest in ensuring that the pills become a part of the fabric of everyday life. It’s a world where everyone is out for him or herself and will find a way to justify the most extreme actions in the name of self-interest and preservation. Soderbergh’s final film – a genre bender which at various times takes the shape of a thriller, a medical drama, and a courtroom drama – is a good one, which is not only well-crafted but contains hidden depths.
The film begins with Emily (Rooney Mara) and Martin (Channing Tatum), who have been married for five years, four of which have been spent with Martin in jail for insider trading. Just released, he’s struggling to reintegrate into the world, but his issues are nothing in comparison to those of Emily, whose depression and anxiety reach such heights that she twice attempts suicide. In the emergency room she’s treated by Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), a psychiatrist who begins seeing her regularly and, after a brief consult with her former shrink, Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), prescribes a new drug for her to help her deal with her depression. Things are great at first, although the pills have troubling side effects which include sleep walking. Banks considers putting her on something else, but it’s too late: during a sleep walking episode she stabs Martin, killing him.
The question of who killed Martin is easily answered, but the question of culpability is complicated. Emily doesn’t remember the incident, having been asleep and under the influence of medication when it happened, therefore there was no “intent” to kill. Still, there is a body and someone needs to pay for that. Faced with a difficult, somewhat politically fraught case, the D.A. makes a deal that allows Emily to plead temporary insanity and serve her time in a mental institution instead of a prison. She’s in the clear, but Banks is not, as his association with the drug and the murder starts slowly unravelling his life, threatening his medical practice, his marriage and perhaps even his own sanity as he becomes increasingly convinced that something is amiss and there’s more to the story than anyone else knows.
Written by Scott Z. Burns, who previously collaborated with Soderbergh on The Informant! and Contagion, Side Effects has a meticulously constructed screenplay that unfolds and then coils around itself, shifting through points of view and genres without ever missing a step. There are a few logic issues that crop up in the final act, but overall the sinister atmosphere and noirish sensibility created by Burns and Soderbergh hide those issues while the film is playing out, making it a distinctly engrossing and entertaining viewing experience. The film manages, seamlessly, to start the story by placing us in sympathy with one character and then shift us towards another, unsettling the narrative at various points so that we don’t always know which characters have their feet on solid ground, and which characters are veering wildly off the road. It’s to Soderbergh’s credit that while the film itself sometimes feels like it’s veering off in wild directions, he’s always able to reign it back it.
The cast is uniformly good, with Mara and Law doing most of the heavy lifting (at least until the final act, when Zeta-Jones gets to flex her considerable acting muscle). Mara is an actress who has been steadily ascending since her brief (but excellent) turn in The Social Network and she delivers a performance here that verges on brilliant. She’s a fascinating presence on screen and is able to believably guide Emily through a series of personas. Law, meanwhile, delivers a terrific performance as a man who, at various times, seems like the staple thriller archetype (the man with the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time), and a man whose growing obsession may take him too far, leading him to ruin his own life and the lives of others in the process.
As final films go, Soderbergh fans may find Side Effects disappointing, insofar as the only artistic “statement” it really makes is to confirm Soderbergh’s status as a master craftsman whose firm grasp of narrative form and content makes you know that you’re in good storytelling hands. It isn’t a “great” film, but it’s a really good one, taking what might otherwise be very conventional fare and giving it new life. It also deftly mixes its genre elements with a bit of actual social commentary, touching on the inherent problems of having a culture steeped in pharmaceuticals and exploring some of the less than savory motives behind pill culture. At this point I've only seen the film once, but I suspect that it's one of those films that will reveal more and more on subsequent viewings. I certainly intend to find out.