Of the many twists and turns in Steven Soderbergh’s vastly entertaining thriller Side Effects, the most gratifying has less to do with the nimble plotting than the fact that it isn’t the type of movie it initially appears to be. Soderbergh has made films about social issues in the past, from the war on drugs (Traffic) to chemical waste (Erin Brockovich) to the spread of a global pandemic (Contagion), so it wouldn’t be out of character for him to tackle the proliferation of antidepressants. While Side Effects certainly doesn’t put a shine on the pharmaceutical industry and the psychiatrists in bed with it, the happy surprise of the film is that it isn’t in the business of delivering messages. Scripted by Scott Z. Burns, who worked with Soderbergh on the intricately plotted likes of Contagion and The Informant!, it’s more about high-level gamesmanship and duplicity, with the drug issue itself relegated to a side effect.
Rooney Mara is superb as the glue that binds this fractured psychological puzzle. She stars as a seemingly normal New York professional who’s in fact rapidly approaching a breakdown. Though her husband (Channing Tatum) is due for release from prison after being sentenced for white-collar crime, the uncertainty and stress of his return throws her into deep depression. Shortly after he comes home, she attempts to take her own life. She’s been treated for depression in the past, but she hasn’t reacted well to all the popular antidepressants. Her new therapist (Jude Law) writes her a prescription for Ablixa, a new drug that initially dispels the dark clouds in her head, but she begins to exhibit some odd behavior, like prowling the apartment in her sleep.
In his last theatrical feature before his planned retirement, Soderbergh plants uncanny echoes of his first, sex, lies, and videotape, by putting his protagonist on the therapist’s couch, where she tries to sort through the disappointment, betrayal, and general ennui that’s gripped her life. And yet this is the Soderbergh who has learned, over time, to reconcile his thoughtful, often-clinical approach to filmmaking with the snap of a first-rate Hollywood craftsman. Side Effects has some compelling themes hovering in its orbit—the compromises of individuals and doctors in a corporate-run health-care system, the dangerous shortcuts people can take on the road to happiness—but its appeals are also gloriously shallow. Like his underappreciated Haywire, Side Effects screws around in its own thriller architecture, toying with feints of structure and clever bits of misdirection, and otherwise playing the audience like a fiddle. At this point in his career, Soderbergh pulls it off with the unpracticed ease of a maestro.
For thoughts on, and a place to discuss, plot details not talked about in this review, visit Side Effects’ Spoiler Space.