Director Steven Soderbergh’s retirement from cinema after a career of 30-plus years has been much ballyhooed, and is hopefully only temporary. But if “Side Effects” turns out to be his last movie, it’s a shame, because this one shows him at the top of his game. Soderbergh is working again with screenwriter Scott Z. Burns, and if their previous collaboration “Contagion” suffered from being a bit too sprawling, they certainly learned from the experience: “Side Effects” is a tightly constructed gem.
Rooney Mara (“The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”) plays Emily, a troubled woman whose husband Martin (Channing Tatum, “Magic Mike”) is just getting out of jail after time served for insider trading on Wall Street. Martin is convinced he can put things back on track, but Emily seems to be collapsing from the stress. A failed suicide attempt lands her in the care of Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), who takes more than a passing interest in his attractive young patient. After consulting with her former shrink, Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), he puts Emily on a smorgasbord of meds, one of which has the side effect of giving her blackouts, which leads to a tragic accident.
This was one of those collective gasp-out-loud moments in the cinema, and all plot description will end here. (And seriously, don’t even read the synopsis on IMDb.com, which contains a massive spoiler.) What Soderbergh achieves remarkably well with “Side Effects” is something only rarely glimpsed since Alfred Hitchcock’s classic “Psycho”: a story which pulls you in for a couple of reels looking like one type of movie, only to break that flow and veer off in an entirely unexpected direction.
Soderbergh has spoken of how he likes films that are doing more than one thing at the same time, and “Side Effects” is certainly that. On the one hand, it’s a sharp critique of an overly-medicated America and the cozy relationship between Big Pharma and the compromised doctors who prescribe its mood-altering drugs. Mara, for her part, offers one of the most realistic depictions of chronic depression I’ve ever seen, and grasps the desperation of someone longing for any relief from that state.
The film’s big pivot comes when the cops start investigating the whys of Emily’s blackout incident; Banks tries to defend her but a cop tells him bluntly, it’s either her fault or “she’s the victim of her medical treatment. Someone gets punished, either her or you.” It’s good advice, but Banks takes the high road and gets railroaded anyway. He then launches a quest to prove his innocence, which takes the film deep into film-noir whodunit territory. The casting of Law here also shows just how canny Soderbergh is, deliberately playing on our memories of Law from the last time we saw him in a Soderbergh film, “Contagion,” where he played a very shifty blogger; we spend the whole movie wondering whether he’s a negligent shrink who deserves the career-ruin he’s getting, or if he’s a good guy who’s been set up to take the fall.
The film gets a little too plot-twisty toward the end, but no more so than any classic Hitchcock movie you could point to — “Vertigo,” anyone? — and the layers of lies, deception and betrayal that Soderbergh weaves are certainly worthy of comparison with that master.