“Side Effects” is the most recent and allegedly last film from director Steven Soderbergh (“Traffic” and “Ocean’s Eleven”). The highly talented and Oscar-winning director said that he would call it quits in the film industry after his 50th birthday (which was Jan. 14), and if he holds true to that promise, it will be a hard pill to swallow for film lovers everywhere. But the fact that this ranks as one of the better Soderbergh endeavors is something that can make his “retirement” easier to cope with.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the movie, “Side Effects” starts out with Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”) visiting her husband Martin (Channing Tatum of “Magic Mike”), who is about to be released from prison after serving time for insider trading. But before she picks up Martin as a free man, Emily goes through some turbulent emotional times that land her in the hospital under the care of resident psychiatrist Jonathan Banks (Jude Law of “Sherlock Holmes”). Banks agrees to schedule therapy sessions with Emily and also to start some prescription antidepressants. After consulting with Emily’s previous psychiatrist, Victoria Seibert (Catherine Zeta-Jones of “Chicago”), Banks prescribes the drug Ablixa, and after that point the movie really takes off.
The script and storyline by themselves wouldn’t really make a great thriller, but factor in the eerie score by Thomas Newman along with the fantastic directing of Soderbergh, and “Side Effects” turns out to be a solid movie. Without the deft hand of Soderbergh behind the camera, the transitions the film takes, from character study to courtroom drama and then back to psychological thriller, would have turned off most viewers. But Soderbergh manages to pull it off expertly with smooth, tasteful camera work and by framing each shot very creatively. That being said, there are some minor pacing issues around the middle of the movie. It is especially disappointing to see those problems crop up right after one the story’s biggest twists; a twist that made almost the entire theater, including myself, let out an audible gasp. But after navigating through that slow patch, the story picks up again. There is a lot of misdirection and a couple of clever twists at the end, but they come off as good, not great. However, Newman’s score almost always seems to be going on in the background, sometimes at a volume can barely be heard while still recognizing its presence. The music gives every scene an ominous sense that there is something lurking just out of sight, and it helps keep viewers on the edge of their seats as a good thriller should.
Besides Soderbergh’s innovative filmmaking, the strong lead performances by Mara and Law are what make “Side Effects” really stand out. Mara has carried her momentum from “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” into this movie, and her acting is simply excellent. She nails being a total bummer of a character, and she only impresses more as the movie goes on. But it is Law that really steals the show. Actors play doctors all the time, but somehow Law feels almost perfect for the role. And when events suddenly change, Law accepts his character’s newfound motivation and harnesses it to become the main protagonist of the story.
“Side Effects” is a special kind of thriller. It keeps changing your expectations to create suspense and uncertainty, often transforming from one type of film to the next. For some, that may hurt their enjoyment of the movie, especially when the film seems ready to become an expose on the evils of pharmacological consulting and big pharmaceutical companies in general, but then it takes a whole new direction, leaving those questions unanswered. But don’t let me talk you out of seeing this film. It’s a special and creative type of thriller, creating a template that more movies should work off in the future. So go and try to catch “Side Effects” in theaters near you — doctor’s orders.