Mood-altering pills power nifty thriller ‘Side Effects’
Obfuscation is the name of the game in Steven Soderbergh’s intricate new thriller Side Effects. The kind of tense drama for which the words “taut” and “twisty” are usually strung together in a sentence, this dark tale of sex, lies, and pharmaceutical skullduggery is a masterpiece of misdirection, artfully calibrated so that the viewer—like the film’s overly medicated characters—often has no idea what may or may not be going on. In retrospect, even the preview trailer (which has been playing around town for weeks) fools around with our expectations, so that the film itself is still full of nifty surprises.
Scripted by Scott Z. Burns (who also wrote Soderbergh’s Contagion), the story revolves around Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara), a young woman battling depression. She was accustomed to living large back in Connecticut—parties, boat, mansion—until her yuppie stockbroker husband, Martin (Channing Tatum), went to prison for insider trading. Emily has gotten a job and moved to an apartment in New York City, but now that Martin is getting out again, she doesn’t know how to cope.
Martin is full of big plans, promising Emily, “I can get us back to where we were.” But she complains that the anti-anxiety drugs she’s been taking interfere with her work, her sleep, and her sex drive. When the car she’s driving has a close encounter with a brick wall, she lands in a downtown hospital for observation. The psychiatrist who happens to be making the rounds that day is Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), who also has a successful practice and chic clientele elsewhere in the city. Dr. Banks is a thoughtful, caring guy, first introduced as he quietly intervenes between an angry cop and a seemingly violent patient; Banks speaks French to the patient, a cab driver from Haiti, and calms him down.
Banks clears Emily to go home, with the stipulation that she start seeing him in his private practice. Attempting to regulate her meds, he consults with Dr. Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who was Emily’s therapist in Connecticut. Between them, they decide that Banks should prescribe an experimental new drug called Ablixa. Emily is delighted that Ablixa seems to be restoring her equilibrium in so many ways—except for one unexpected side effect. Before long, Dr. Banks is drawn into a sensational murder scandal that threatens his practice, his family, his career, and possibly even his own sanity.
Soderbergh is smart to use a supple actor like Law in the pivotal role of Dr. Banks; Law’s surface is so smooth and perfect, it often seems like a facade, and we never know what demons might be roiling away underneath. He can play earnest compassion and crazed obsession with equal dexterity, and as Dr. Banks is dragged ever deeper into the labyrinthine plot, we’re always a little off-balance as to which aspect of his personality we’re seeing.
Mara too is gifted with another complicated role to follow up her Oscar-nominated performance in the English-language remake of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Although mousy anxiety is Emily’s usual M.O. (her smiles are rare—and dazzling), Mara also gives her moments of stark, chilling power, which are just as credible.
Meanwhile, beyond the thriller plot, Soderbergh delves with relish into the larger milieu of a society in which external medication is promoted as the answer to every problem—real or imagined. Large pharmaceutical cartels pay therapists big bucks to peddle new meds to their patients, or else provide free drugs to anyone willing to participate in a study, while doctors assure their patients that this or that mood-altering drug “makes it easier to be who you are.”
Figuring out who anybody is, on or off drugs, is the key to the mystery at the heart of Side Effects. Soderbergh gives us plenty of clues along the way, although it’s not until the end that we realize how cleverly it all fits together. If, indeed, this is Soderbergh’s last film (and that’s the rumor), he leaves us with a dark, compact thriller about identity, responsibility, and consequences.
★★★(out of four)
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With Jude Law, Rooney Mara, Channing Tatum, and Catherine Zeta-Jones.
Written by Scott Z. Burns. Directed by Steven Soderbergh.
An Open Road release. Rated R. 106 minutes.