Title: Side Effects
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Starring: Jude Law, Rooney Mara, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Channing Tatum, Vinessa Shaw, Ann Dowd
It is difficult to find someone who does not currently or has not at one point in their life taken prescription drugs. The prevalence of remedies to a number of physical, emotional, and psychological conditions, many of which did not officially exist decades ago, has made it so that nearly every problem has a fix. The unforeseen collateral damage of prescribing and taking a drug with unknown effects is part of what inspired screenwriter Scott Z. Burns to pen Steven Soderbergh’s latest film, which tracks the irreversible consequences of one woman’s dependency on an untested new drugs and the chaos it creates for her once-idyllic life.
Side Effects begins with the release of Martin (Channing Tatum) from jail after a four-year term for finance-related white collar crimes. He returns to his New York City apartment to find his wife, Emily (Rooney Mara), struggling with depression and having trouble acclimating to his being present. After an unsuccessful suicide attempt, Emily meets with psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), who begins treating her for her symptoms and, on the advice of the doctor Emily saw when Martin was first incarcerated, Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), prescribes her a new medication that serves to dull her symptoms. It leads, however, to an unexpected and violent event whose specifics should not be spoiled here, which puts both Emily and Jonathan in an unfortunate position from which it is impossible to turn back.
Side Effects is very much two separate films, one that takes place leading up to the incident that sets many of its events in motion, and the other that picks up afterwards. The first act has a dreamlike feel, mimicking the numb way in which Emily is proceeding through life. Something about her situation is inescapable, and it manages to draw Jonathan in almost immediately, to the point where he can think and speak of nothing else. Once Emily’s medication has led her to commit a horrific deed, the film becomes a conspiracy thriller of sorts, as she is thrust into an awful position and Jonathan fights to assemble all of the pieces and make sense of the situation. The first half is intoxicating and intriguing, and the second half enlivens the film’s energy, shifting gears considerably to tell a startlingly different story.
For the lead role of Emily, who is one of the film’s two protagonists, Mara is the perfect choice. In a short film career, Mara has managed to establish an extraordinary ability to invest herself completely in taking on the personality and psyche of a role, fully inhabiting her character. After her Oscar-nominated turn as hacker Lisbeth Salander in the American adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Mara trades in Lisbeth’s vindictive nature for a more somber front, one that seems hopeless but contains much more buried underneath. Law performs adequately in a part that doesn’t demand much of him, the straight man to Mara’s richer muse. Tatum and Zeta-Jones are memorable in crucial supporting roles, and veteran actress Ann Dowd also demonstrates her capabilities as Emily’s mother-in-law after her career-best performance in Compliance last year.
This is a Steven Soderbergh film, which means little other than that top-notch filmmaking can be expected. The versatile director, who made Erin Brockovich and Traffic in the same year and has completed a diverse slate recently, which includes Haywire, Contagion, Magic Mike, The Informant, and Che, has no distinctly recognizable style, but he does fiercely commit to each project he takes on, telling a story with grace and vitality. This film may not be his strongest or most memorable, but, as with his other projects, there is a clear cinematic quality to this compelling tale of drugs, diagnoses, and the human component that controls their effectiveness.
Written by Abe Fried-Tanzer