Steven Soderbergh, so often adventurous over the course of his career, closes out his theatrical run with the relatively conventional thriller Side Effects. Though the ideas within are familiar, a winding narrative path keeps predictability out of sight, and prevents Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns from ever falling back to one simplistic message. Soderbergh’s own skill with the form allows him to pursue that path at length, without losing the plot.

Starting off with pharmacological paranoia, the two take clear inspiration from Rosemary’s Baby, and toy with notions that call back to Hitchcock. But this is no throwback. Soderbergh has crafted a smart but pessimistic film rooted firmly in fears that are becoming more and more common today.

The film is built around a woman (Rooney Mara) who suffers from severe depression and falls into the care of a potentially dodgy psychiatrist. Side Effects traffics in the tone of modern paranoia that defined previous Soderbergh/Burns collaboration Contagion, and revels in the duplicity that was a cornerstone of their first partnership, The Informant!. The three films define something like an informal trilogy in which we are chronically disconnected, dishonest, and perhaps eventually doomed.

The distressed woman is Emily, whose husband Martin (Channing Tatum) has been in jail for insider trading. Her joy upon his release is muted. She quickly falls into a deep depression, and gives in to a spur-of-the-moment suicidal urge. Enter Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), who begins to chart her path to recovery using a suite of psychoactive drugs.

The drugs are problematic, and consultation with Emily’s previous doctor (Catherine Zeta-Jones) leads Banks to try a new medication. Without going into too much detail, the results are… bad.

Side Effects is not a one-pronged evisceration of the pharmaceutical industry. Criticism of the means by which “big pharma” colludes with doctors to push new drugs is present in the movie, but things aren’t so clear-cut as to leave that as the villain. We wonder about the purity of Banks’ character, as he has his own lucrative consulting deal with another drug manufacturer, but he’s never characterized as anything other than a well-intentioned, if over-extended practicioner.

The inexact nature of psychiatry is a source of tension and even horror, and also fuels the exploration an old idea. Hitchcock’s classic approach was the “wrong man” story, where a character is persecuted for a crime they didn’t commit. One question in Side Effects is “might any one of us, in fact, be both the “wrong man” and the right one?” Can innocent and criminal minds be the same organ?

Opening with a long, slow push-in to the windows of the Taylor apartment, the influence of both Hitchcock (Psycho) and Polanski (Rosemary’s Baby) is readily apparent. Side Effects echoes Polanski’s first American studio movie as Krzysztof Komeda’s fragile bells show up in Thomas Newman‘s score, and in the notion of a young couple whose lives are drastically rewritten by what seem to be external forces. Soderbergh isn’t shy when he borrows ideas (see The Limey and Point Blank) but he’s also smart enough to add new context. Side Effects borrows, but makes the influences feel fresh.

If this thriller isn’t as formally wild as some of Soderbergh’s most eccentric work, it demonstrates that the past two and a half decades have left him with the ability to tell a story with razor-sharp precision. The director cuts away any fat that could slow the motion of this film, and in doing so gives the actors — Rooney Mara and Jude Law in particular — room to explore many aspects of their characters. Mara in particular gets a chance to stretch, and makes the most of the opportunity. The details she uses to paint Emily’s various psychoses are convincing and frightening, even when Burns’ script pushes her to extremes.

As Soderbergh changes tracks to keep us off-balance, he turns the film into a genre exercise that indulges ideas that are genuinely troubling. In the end, the fear it truly engages is that hubris, not misguided treatment, can destroy us. Which is to say, as we begin to believe we’ve mastered what ails us, broad confidence in the methods distracts from the real problems at hand. And by wrapping the ugly idea in a palatable thriller, Soderbergh insures that we swallow all of it.
 /Film score: 7.5 out of 10
(Soderbergh has one more project to release, the HBO film Behind the Candelabra. I say “final” in the headline because I’m taking his claims of retiring from making theatrical films at face value, but put it in quotes because I don’t believe he’s truly done.)
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About the Author

Russ Fischer lives in Los Angeles. For film reviews, the 1-10 scale breakdown goes like this: anything over a 5 is positive. (twitter.com/russfischer) or (russ.slashfilm at gmail.com)

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