Purportedly the final film from Oscar winning director, Steven Soderbergh, this esoteric little thriller is a weird little concoction of captivating performances and unfulfilled second guessing, and is perhaps fittingly low-key for a man intrinsically associated with versatility and the unexpected.
Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) has been waiting for her husband, Martin (Channing Tatum), to be released from prison after a four year stint for insider trading. So why then does she attempt to commit vehicular suicide so soon after he comes out? Sketchy, fragile, distant, it emerges that she has a history of psychological trouble, a condition which brings her to the attention of Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), a pharmaceuticals partner who decides she is the perfect candidate for a new and lucrative anti-depressant drug which “stops the brain telling you you’re sad”. When one of the side effects not listed on the label has catastrophic consequences on everyone’s lives, a deceitful blame game begins to unravel.
Intriguing from the moment Soderbergh’s camera fluidly dives into this drably lit world through a concrete block window, accompanied by Thomas Newman’s omnipresent and effective score, to reveal a blood splattered apartment. This is a real slow-burner, a fragmented film which echoes the mindset of its confused protagonists and instils an insidious feeling for the viewer as they attempt to point the accusatory finger.
For some it will be frustrating that it never quite delivers in terms of dramatic beats. The first half of the story acts as a placebo, convincing the audience that they’re watching a talky drama about the merits of manufactured drugs, with characters trading them like Panini stickers and discussing them commonplace. Then the narratives blood begins to twist as something genuinely shocking happens, before it descends back into its dialogue heavy mechanics. It makes the more exciting moments highly effective, but they are so few and far between and then dealt with in such a cold, sterile way, that it could be misconstrued as dull.
What is unquestionable is the diagnosis of the performances; if you didn’t know if already, Rooney Mara is something special. There is nothing forced about her turn here; she walks the line of sanity so brilliantly that you question your own in terms of where your loyalty as a viewer rests. She has the unerring ability to come across like she’s not trying, especially during scenes which could so easily have resulted in histrionics, she’s that good. And Jude Law, a marmite actor if ever there was one, is excellent. Afforded the most accessible character of the piece, amongst such a cold, unwelcoming story, it’s important that he makes Dr. Banks someone to root for; otherwise you’d require anti-depressants as a post-movie pick-me-up.
Side Effects might leave you feeling comfortably numb with its own brand of low-key thrills, and its own warning label might read “could induce sleep and feelings of dissatisfaction”, but Soderbergh’s intentions to stimulate as well as entertain are admirable, and if it does prove to be his last movie, regardless of the end product, that’s a mission statement all too rare on the big screen.