Steven Soderbergh is making films at such a rapid pace these days — three in the last 13 months — and changes genres so often that you never know quite what to expect from one of his films. So it’s no surprise that with “Side Effects” you get — the unexpected.
Soderbergh and writer Scott Z. Burns collaborated previously on “Contagion,” a medical thriller of sorts, so initially “Side Effects” feels like it inhabits similar territory. But no, this is a pure thriller albeit one set in the world of psychopharmacology.
It’s a pretty nifty one at that, keeping you off balance throughout as you can’t really guess where on earth the story is taking you as it introduces you to a cast of increasingly uptight and desperate characters. They have good reason to be.
Rooney Mara plays Emily, a young woman swept off her feet by a handsome Wall Street player, Martin (Channing Tatum), only to get dumped hard. No, not by her husband or at least not directly.
He got carted off to prison for insider trading four years before the story starts. She is dutifully waiting for his return although no longer in a lakeside Connecticut mansion but rather a modest Upper Manhattan apartment with only her job to pay rent.
His release triggers a deep depression within her, which causes what looks like a suicide attempt — or at least a cry for help. Psychiatrist Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) agrees to release her from the hospital on condition she sees him regularly and agrees to a regimen of antidepressants.
Well, to paraphrase an old Jefferson Airplane song, one pill makes her droopy and one pill makes her bawl and new ones that doctor gives her don’t do anything at all.
Soon Emily drifts in a pharmaceutical fog that pulls her toward the edges of high ledges, subway platforms and shape knives.
Soderbergh builds terrific tension in these sleepwalking episodes where his heroine seems to flirt with tragedy, recalling those drawn-out daydreams Kim Novak drifts through in Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.”
(Since writing those lines I looked at “Vertigo” again and now think Soderbergh and Burns borrowed more than a little from Hitchcock’s masterpiece.)
Then abruptly — you may foresee it an instant before it happens — a tragedy does take place but not the one you dreaded.
Almost immediately, the police, media, D.A.’s office and even colleagues turn on the doctor who prescribed the pills that had such chilling side effects.
His family and practice shatter in the onslaught but Jonathan chooses what seems like the safest legal course of action not only for himself but those devastated by a lost life. Even so the incident refuses to go away.
Developing a single-minded obsession to find out the truth and who or what — a drug company? — is responsible, Jonathan seemingly goes off such a deep end that he may soon need some of those pills himself.
The movie is just getting started.
Burns wrote the script in consultation with the film’s co-producer, Dr. Sasha Bardey, former Deputy Director of Forensic Psychiatry for the City of New York. The highly realistic depiction of the world of psychiatry and of antidepressants is one of the things that make “Side Effects” such an enticing thriller.
Another are the actors. Law effectively portrays a man going to pieces through no real fault of his own. A man who has perhaps been too prudent most of his life, he now finds himself without any real good options.
Mara brings that weird edginess from her Oscar-nominated performance as Lisbeth Salander in “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” into this much different character. You can’t quite tell what’s going on behind her startled eyes and implacable gaze. She’s an enigma.
Tatum has the placid exterior of a guy who got caught once but may or may not pull off something shifty again. You don’t quit trust him but you do feel he is sincere when it comes to his wife whom he dearly loves.
A fourth main character is Catherine Zeta-Jones’ icy Victoria Siebert, Emily’s former psychiatrist with whom Jonathan consults concerning the best course of treatment for his patient. With her long dark hair pulled back and thick-rimmed glasses, Zeta-Jones may be channeling Jeanne Tripplehorn’s Dr. Beth Garner in “Basic Instinct.”
The final character is Vinessa Shaw as Jonathan’s wife who can so easily believe the worst about her husband. Is there something in his past that bears on this case?
A thriller built around an enigmatic character such as “Vertigo” and “Side Effects” is hard to pull off in a credible manner since by its very nature the movie deals in incredible story material. It’s the singular achievement of Soderbergh and Burns that they manage to pull it off in this movie.
As usual, Soderbergh shoots the film himself under the pseudonym of Peter Andrews and he uses a cool blue palette to catch the wintry emotions and tensions that envelop all the story’s characters.
Opens: February 8, 2013 (Open Road)
Production companies: Di Bonaventura Entertainment/Endgame Entertainment
Cast: Jude Law, Rooney Mara, Channing Tatum, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Mamie Gummer, Vinessa Shaw, David Costabile
Director/director of photography: Steven Soderbergh
Screenwriter: Scott Z. Burns
Producers: Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Scott Z. Burns, Gregory Jacobs
Executive producers: Douglas Hansen, James D. Stern
Production designer: Howard Cummings
Music: Thomas Newman
Costume designer: Susan Lyall
Editor: Mary Ann Bernard
R rating, 106 minutes