Directed by Steven Soderbergh
There’s a congratulatory sophistication to several of Steven Soderbergh’s films, a slightly synthetic swing and a cynical of-the-moment savvy that’s smarmy in Ocean’s, toxic in Girlfriend Experience, mercifully sparse across Che, and just perfect in The Limey. It’s a quality Soderbergh implicitly plays on in Side Effects, a movie twistily resistant to conventional review: the first tip-off that it may be more than a pharmaceutical drama is how stale its hook comes to seem. New York professional Emily (Rooney Mara) is having unsettling problems with new meds after her husband (Channing Tatum) comes back from jail for insider trading and... that’s it? Surely reality TV or the Internet must be involved in there somewhere too?
Nope: heralded by the mysterious bloody trail shown in an apartment, Side Effects quickly mutates into an increasingly dippy thriller fueled by the flailings of Emily’s coasting psychiatrist (Contagion alum Jude Law) and the shadowy emergence of her earlier shrink (Catherine Zeta Jones). Mara’s powers of persuasion make her a formidable victim (her casting is something of a tell), and the strain that seems part of every Law performance now (sometimes he doesn’t seem to believe even himself) suits the chaos induced by his patient’s unusual response to treatment. Bookending shots, in which the camera hovers slowly toward and then away from a building window, quote Michael Crichton’s 1978 medical thriller Coma and embody a mind-bending, serene flight into the far side of human behavior.
If Side Effects isn’t the study of our routinely addled and compromised pharma-world that you might first anticipate, Soderbergh does tap into a long-established cinematic obsession with the psychiatric. Whether it was the Freudian exposition that seemed to sweep Hollywood after WWII, or amnesia-driven films noir and melodramas, screenwriters and directors grew fascinated with what might be called “the break”: the narrative moment when all bets are off, and the reason isn’t reason, God, or love, but something crazier and unplumbed. For Soderbergh—and again I tread lightly simply to preserve some of the film’s did-I-miss-something plotting—anti-depressants and their ilk clearly hold an attraction as legally mind-altering drugs: it’s a socially sanctioned method for chemical experimentation on your brain that remains rather less precisely understood (or carefully prescribed) than you might expect.
Class anxiety backlights Side Effects, both for Mara’s and Law’s characters, as economic pressures supposedly push everyone along into decisions they might not otherwise make. Yet the real societal pressure-point is the role of psychotropic drugs: it’s as if Soderbergh’s overripe plotting reflects the turmoil under the surface of an illusorily pacified populace. This film is one of Soderbergh’s floatiest in terms of audience identification, and while that’s a sure fit to the ethical free-fall explored by the story—not to mention the identity crisis of a drug that tautologically “makes it easier to be who you are” as Law’s character puts it—the equivalent feeling of being untethered can also lead to not caring. Side effects may include whaaa...
Opens February 8