This is the end for director Steven Soderbergh. He says he’s packing up, retiring from film, moving on to other artistic projects. If he is finished, Side Effects is an oddly ho-hum send-off for one of this generation’s most fiercely independent, daring filmmakers. At its worst, it practically bleeds indifference. Even Soderbergh’s flickering interest, however, is enough to ply and twist his farewell into a fascinating, smutty interpretation of our cultural and commercial relationship with pharmaceutical drugs.
Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns don’t say anything revolutionary in Side Effects about the pills we pop or the industry that pushes them on us. They settle for familiar criticisms — the dangers of these drugs, the complicity of bad doctors who prescribe them, and the rest of that ilk — while setting the pieces for a slow, suspenseful medical mystery. A psychiatrist named Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) begins having sessions with Emily (Rooney Mara), a young woman suspected of a suicide attempt soon after her ex-Wall Street trader husband (Channing Tatum) is released from prison. Banks prescribes a new drug called “Ablixa” for Emily’s anxiety disorder, and to his shock, she murders her husband shortly after taking the medication. She has no memory of the act; she claims the drug left her in a sleepwalking stupor. Is she a killer? Is her doctor responsible? Where does medical treatment end, and where does criminal intent begin?
Side Effects: Mara and Tatum
These questions are far too heavy to answer in less than two hours, and so, the film takes a hard turn toward psychological conspiracy shortly after it settles into the mystery. And yet, that stark shift hinges on the troubling issues of dominance and submission that those questions imply. Mara plays such a convincingly ill woman, and Law such a desperately arrogant man, their roles seem all but guaranteed. She’s the victim; he’s guilty. This is Soderbergh’s craftsmanship at work, teasing out traditional tropes about protagonists and antagonists while hinting toward a story that contradicts our expectations. It’s manipulation by way of discomfort with pharmaceutical drugs and familiarity with clichéd gender roles — and it works too well. By avoiding irony, Side Effects deceives the audience, playing a decent twist as a trick that doesn’t surprise or entertain nearly enough.
Fortunately, a collection of talented actors buoy Side Effects as it veers toward the ridiculous. Mara, a cold ferocity hidden behind her eyes, subverts the “wounded bird” archetype splendidly — she’s as fragile as an old leather glove. Law embraces his character’s descent into paranoia, bouncing from confidence to doubt and back again with gradual changes in his performance. As he loses control — and later, tries to regain it — Banks pivots from calm and collected to manic and anxious. It’s a sly, tricky inversion, and these two fine actors manage it terrifically.
Side Effects is far from the first thriller to twist gender roles for dramatic tension, of course. Soderbergh has an eye toward the sort of erotic thriller that was ubiquitous in the late 1980s and early 1990s. (Think Fatal Attraction on antidepressants.) By dancing around the pitfalls of the pharmaceutical industry, he’s made a film that indulges its provocative forerunners without sacrificing the criticisms it lobs toward doctors, pill manufacturers and medical culture at large. The shift in tone is jarring — If Ocean’s 11 were a medical thriller, it would look something like the final third of Side Effects — but the message survives the bumpy ride.
If Soderbergh sticks to his word, it’ll be a loss for the film world. Side Effects isn’t his best film, or his most compelling one, but it demonstrates why he’s still the best editor in the business. He cuts dialogue in a way that adds action and drama and tension to even small, quiet scenes. His edits imply the significance of scenes and characters, aiding exposition without weighing it down. This is a master at play. Even if Soderbergh hasn’t gone out on a high note, he’s left on the next best thing — a fond one.