Most ads for prescription drugs are baffling. When the pleasant sounding voice actor obediently lists all the unpleasant, unintended consequences, they invariably sound worse than the condition that’s being treated. That uneasy tension is a part of Side Effects, the new thriller from Steven Soderbergh. While prescriptions are the catalyst for the plot, Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns are not so interested in pharmaceutical industry. Instead, their movie is downright Hitchcockian, with themes and shots that the Master of Suspense loved. Despite the inspiration, Soderbergh still makes the movie his, and his cold distance from his actors creates an unusual kind of suspense.
The first act revolves around a not-so-happy couple. Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) and her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) are trying to rebuild their lives after he spent time in prison for insider training. He’s eager to get back into the business world, while she is losing a battle with crippling depression. After a failed suicide attempt, Emily talks with Jonathon (Jude Law), a hospital-appointed psychiatrist. She begins seeing him regularly, and Jonathon prescribes a new anti-depression drug upon the suggestion of Victoria (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who had Emily as her patient before. The drug causes Emily to sleep-walk, and something terrible happens during one of these episodes. The incident creates blowback for Jonathon since he’s the one treating her, and he soon gets the sense something strange is happening beneath the surface.
Up until Emily’s sleepwalking incident, Side Effects plays out like a domestic drama. Jonathon is on the sidelines, and all the focus is on Emily’s mental state. But after sympathy pivots from Emily to Jonathon, Soderbergh reveals his hand. He creates a complex puzzle for Jonathon to solve, one that involves multi-layered deception, and the stakes couldn’t be higher. The wrongly accused man, of course, is one of Hitchcock’s favorite plot twists. There’s a little North by Northwest here, and more than a little Psycho: aside from the shift in perspective, there is an important scene where abstract shots heighten the tension of a stabbing. Vertigo is an influence, too, but explaining how would reveal too much.
Whereas the middle section unfolds with gnawing paranoia, the conclusion is more daring. It is hard to say exactly when, but there’s a point in Side Effects where Jonathon more or less understands what is happening to him. Crucially, Burns and Soderbergh do not reveal everything to the audience, so we’re left to wonder just how he will pull off an elaborate triple-cross. Jonathon’s ethics only complicate the final scenes: he breaks the Hippocratic Oath as he needles his enemies, and the script does not supply him with a crisis of conscience. While his response is proportional, it’s also a little cruel, yet he’s still a sympathetic character since his scheme is so damn clever. Like the best thrillers, Side Effects understands that few things are more suspenseful than a smart man who can think on his feet.
Soderbergh sometimes regards his characters dispassionately, which is certainly the case here. And since the Hithcockian elements are extra manipulative, it is difficult for any actor to shine with this kind of material. The four leads are workmanlike, and they crucially restrain their performances. Law conveys professionalism and intelligence more than anything else: even when he’s being conspired against, than the dogged knowledge that he’s right motivates more than fear . As Emily, Mara is appropriately frail, and the quiet desperation in her eyes is convincing. Zeta-Jones has even less to do, but she’s memorable thanks to her fierce, steely eyes and a sudden scene of useless violence. After Haywire and Magic Mike, Soderbergh might all as well call these films “The Tatum Trilogy.” Once again, he proves he’s a versatile actor, and not nearly as dumb as he looks.
Side Effects is Steven Soderbergh’s final film, and upon first glance, it’s a strange choice. Then again, Soderbergh’s career has always been dynamic, and his projects never cohered to the typical growth of an artist. In a recent interview with Vulture, Mary Kaye Schilling asked the director if his final films represent a larger statement, and he replied with, “Not at all. A couple of them were just happenstance.” So compared to author top directors, Soderbergh has always been a master craftsmen who applied his unique style the projects that interest him, instead of an auteur whose work is highly personal. For a final film, a Hitchcockian thriller is as appropriate as anything else. No other genre affords a director such tightly-wound control over his audience, or is as much fun to watch.