Side Effects—Steven Soderbergh’s 26th film, his fourth to be released in the past 16 months, and—if his recent, half-serious-sounding retirement announcement is to be credited —his last to be released in theaters, provides a minor but distinct kind of cinematic pleasure: the joy of sitting back and letting a master manipulator mess with your head. This sleek psychological thriller has more twists than a Slinky. In order not to reveal any of the film’s surprises here, I’ll have to tread very lightly, so forgive me if the plot summary that follows amounts to little more than “figures move about doing things in a rectangular frame.”
After an opening teaser that gives us a decontextualized glimpse of the aftermath of an act of violence, we flash back three months to find ourselves in a domestic drama about Martin Taylor (Channing Tatum), a convicted insider trader just released from prison, and his clinically depressed wife, Emily (Rooney Mara). As they struggle to settle into a life together (in circumstances far reduced from the early high-on-the-hog days of their marriage), the emotionally fragile, often suicidal Emily has bad experiences on one anti-depressant drug after another. Finally, with the help of her concerned psychiatrist, Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), she finds some relief with a pill called Ablixa. But Ablixa has one highly undesirable side effect: It causes Emily to sleepwalk, sleep-snack, even sleep-crank loud music in the middle of the night, none of which she remembers in the morning. Dr. Banks prescribes other drugs to counteract the effects of the Ablixa, which seems to help for a while—until that out-of-the-blue act of violence changes the Taylors’, and Dr. Banks’, lives forever.
That’s about all you’re going to get out of me story-wise, but I will say that before it’s over Side Effects, which was written by Scott Z. Burns, has cycled more or less effortlessly through an impressive number of genres: it’s a courtroom procedural! It’s a medical melodrama! It’s a mordant exposé of the pharmaceutical industry!* In the film’s second half, as the focus shifts from the marital struggles of the Taylors to the question of Dr. Banks’ legal and moral responsibility for the effects of the medications he prescribes, the audience is left hovering in an identificatory limbo, no longer sure which character to believe, trust, or invest in emotionally. After his reputation is smeared by the sensationalist media attention surrounding the case, Dr. Banks’ obsession with clearing his name begins to spiral into paranoia, perhaps even madness—but what if his convoluted conspiracy theories turn out to be true? Emily’s mental state seems to stabilize after … the incident, but are we really to believe that she has no memory of what took place? And why is Emily’s former shrink, Dr. Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), so insistent on continuing to monitor a client she treated, supposedly without incident, long ago?
There are some late plot developments that stretch the bounds of credibility, but by then this stylish, expertly paced thriller has developed enough narrative momentum to whisk viewers along with it. The last few twists function less as revelations about the characters than as sly jokes about the audience’s misdirected attention: Oh, you thought that? Well, you sure never thought this! Some of these revelations feel like clever reversals, others like calculated rug-pulls, but we never stop caring about what happens next.
The force that makes this whole rather silly contraption hang together as well as it does is Rooney Mara, as filmed in rapt close-up by Soderbergh (wielding his own HD camera under the pseudonym Peter Andrews.) She’s a curious presence, a tiny, bird-boned beauty who seems at once vulnerable and emotionally remote—a combination of qualities that served her well both as Mark Zuckerberg’s frosty ex in The Social Network and as the bisexual hacker-punk heroine of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. In Side Effects, Mara’s enormous green eyes solicit our sympathy even as they shut us out of whatever’s going on inside her—like her doctor (and her director), we are powerless before this gloomy siren’s weird allure.
Correction, Feb. 8, 2013: Due to an editing error, this review misidentified Side Effects' screenwriter as Scott Z. Frank. (Return to the corrected sentence.)