Steven Soderbergh’s latest (and, according to him, final) film is a stylish take on the psychiatric-thriller genre that, despite progressive narrative absurdities, mostly delivers a dose to the pleasure centres.
Instead of a major farewell statement, Side Effects is a modest but clever diversion, touching on the director’s familiar themes of deception, emotional disengagement and corporate malfeasance. Propelled by sudden narrative shifts from writer Scott Z. Burns (Contagion, The Informant!), this is a borderline preposterous story grounded in believable performances, with Jude Law as a well-meaning but naive, British-born Manhattan shrink, Rooney Mara as his enigmatic depressive patient and Catherine Zeta-Jones as a feline rival therapist.
Though the theme is contemporary – pharmaceutical-company unscrupulousness, mood-altering drugs as the new middle-class norm – the tone is deliberately retro. With its steady pacing and probing, supple camera work (handled by Soderbergh, under his pseudonym Peter Andrews), the film evokes classic psychodramas, from Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo to Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, as well as kinky offshoots such as Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct.
After the opening shot of fresh blood stains on floorboards gives a taste of what’s to come, Side Effects begins in an extended flashback, with Emily (Mara), applying her lipstick before visiting her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) in prison. Martin is about to be released after four years for insider trading, a crime that saw him lose his Connecticut mansion and yacht. Emily, now living in a modest Manhattan apartment and working in a graphic-design business, is not buoyed by his return. Martin’s release, and his dubious new business plans, trigger the return of a previous depression and, after an incident when she harms herself, she ends up at the hospital.
Resident psychiatrist Jonathan Banks (Law) assesses her and, on her assurances that she won’t harm herself again, takes her on as an out-patient. As the doctor tries out various anti-depressants on her, the results are one failure after another. We see Mara’s thin face framed in tense close-ups – and as a portrait of someone lost in the “poisonous fog” of depression, she’s compellingly credible. At a fancy party where her husband reconnects with his old financial-industry friends, she has a meltdown.
The sympathetic doctor has stresses of his own. He’s scrambling to pay for his tony condo and his stepson’s private school while his financier wife (Vinessa Shaw) looks for work (he slips her a beta-blocker to calm her nerves before job interviews). Emily’s former therapist is the slinky, carefully coiffed Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a doctor to the rich. She purrs approval of Emily going back into therapy (“I think seeing a man will help her”) and suggests that Jonathan might try a new drug called Ablixa.
Coincidentally, a pharmaceutical company offers him funding to do a trial on a new anti-depressant. He tries it on Emily and the results are initially spectacular. Her sex life is revived and she has boundless energy, though there are some troubling side effects.
At this point, the script takes a sharp turn. In the aftermath of a crime, Dr. Banks and his psychiatric competency come under suspicion and his practice and personal life start to fall apart. The doctor, who sees himself as a victim, seems to be entering a spiral of paranoia. Staying home from work, pushing colleagues to give him pills and ignoring his increasingly distressed wife, the doctor appears to be having a crack-up.
As it ratches into its third act – of lawyers’ offices, psychiatric prisons and tense confrontations – Side Effects’s corkscrew plot takes more turns than necessary, though the excesses are excused by the performances.
Although his transformation from dupe to master gamer is a stretch, Law has rarely seemed so at ease in his own skin and receding hairline as he does here. But it’s Rooney who commands the most attention. As she already proved in David Fincher’s The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, she has an oddly fascinating screen presence, suggesting both vulnerability and inscrutable levels of calculation. Few actors or actresses can make inexpressiveness look so smart.