“Side Effects” is director Steven Soderbergh’s latest and, he claims, his last theatrical release before he moves on to other artistic pursuits. Known for such popular hits as the “Ocean’s 11/12/13” series, “Erin Brockovich,” Out of Sight,” “Michael Clayton,” and his Oscar-winning “Traffic,” Soderbergh is notable for good-looking and unpredictable. He likes taking risks, with both the form of his films and the expectations of his audience.
This one starts out looking like an expose of the drug industry, shifts to a murder mystery, and ends up being something of a love story—with a decided twist. Just about the time you think you have the story figured out, it turns on you, as several of its characters do on each other. Working as his own cinematographer and film editor, and considerably aided by Thomas Newman’s subtle musical score, Soderbergh leaves with an engaging if perhaps not very serious work.
The opening shot and several scenes will remind film fans of Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” though it wouldn’t be quite fair to say how they do. (Don’t come in late, in any case.) At the outset, Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) waits for her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) to get out of prison, where he has spent four years for insider trading. She seems happy enough to see him, but having lost the glamorous life they had she continues to be deeply depressed. In fact, she drives her car purposely into a garage wall, apparently attempting to kill herself.
At the hospital, attending psychiatrist Jonathon Banks registers his concern, eventually releasing her on condition she set up an appointment. When several anti-depressants that he prescribes don’t lift her mood, Emily herself suggests a new one called Ablixia, saying that a co-worker has praised them. Everyone in the movie’s first half seems conversant with drugs. Even Emily’s previous shrink, Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones) tells Banks that it’s worth a shot and that Emily might do better seeing a male doctor.
But then the plot takes its first sharp turn, bringing both Emily and Banks into danger and into the courtroom. (Did I mention there’s some courtroom drama involving a psychiatrist?) On the way to a happy ending, of sorts, that looks suspiciously tacked on, Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns twist the knife of suspense several more times. The characters are constantly posed against mirrors, windows, and other reflective surfaces, implying the duplicity that all of them become involved in.
A supporting cast sets off some good performances by the principal actors: I especially liked Vinessa Shaw as Banks’ wife and Michael Nathanson as a frustrated DA. Mara is excellent at showing Emily’s vulnerability, and Law moves beyond his pretty boy persona to show a physician who can’t fathom his own patient. Although they never get to develop the initial theme of greed within the drug industry, the actors adequately convey the various dilemmas that confront both psychiatrists and their clients.
“Side Effects” is a slickly rendered movie, rated “R” for violence, language, and some nudity and sex: it’s not for kids. It won’t be up for any awards, as Soderbergh’s previous efforts have been, nor is it likely to leave a lasting impression on you after you’ve left the theater. But if you like complex, sneaky murder mysteries, you should enjoy this one.