Emily Taylor (Mara) welcomes the release of her husband Martin (Tatum) from prison. As the couple readjust, she struggles with depression and is assigned to psychiatrist Jonathan Banks (Law). Yet when Banks prescribes new drug Ablixa, Emily’s behaviour takes a startling turn for the worse.
Side Effects, the latest in Steven Soderbergh’s series of “final” films, pulls the old switcheroo before you’ve settled into your seat. Scripted by Scott Z. Burns, who penned The Informant! and Contagion, it looks like it is going to fire broadsides against the pharmaceutical industry, a kind of Traffic on prescription.
Yet it isn’t. In a superb use of directorial persona-as-misdirection, Side Effects isn’t in the message business. Instead it is a thrill ride for grown-ups, suspenseful, whip-smart and crammed with surprises.
The hows and whys of this are best discovered for yourself. Suffice to say that Side Effects starts on a note of horror, rewinds to take in a portrait of clinical depression and mutates into a gripping Hitchcockian potboiler. As genre flicks go, it is pregnant with provocation — Jude Law’s powwows with the drug execs about consultancy fees are the stuff of high satire — and layered with need, greed and deception at every level.
Yet you never feel the burden of this. Soderbergh directs with a mixture of clinical precision — look at the artful succession of shots that cover a car smashing into a wall — and the zip of an old-school Hollywood journeyman. He also elicits great work from his talented ensemble. In her first lead since The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Rooney Mara expertly vacillates between the chilly and the vulnerable, Tatum brings shadings to a solid lunk and yet, as it progresses, this becomes Jude Law’s picture, a paradigm of over-eager benevolence in the first reel, something quite different in the last. If it does turn out to be Soderbergh’s last flick, this does feel like a summing up of sorts: a woman on a shrink’s couch (sex, lies, and videotape), twisty-turny narratives (The Underneath, Out Of Sight), the effect of a depressed economy on human beings (The Girlfriend Experience, Magic Mike), and Catherine Zeta-Jones (Traffic) as Mara’s previous psychiatrist. Yet it doesn’t feel reheated. It has the vim and vigour of a debut.
We may lose Soderbergh to painting, theatre and HBO-fuelled TV, and that’s a crying shame. If that’s the case, Side Effects is a great note on which to go out.