In Contagion, Steven Soderbergh made us all compulsive hand-washers, lest we come down with a sickness worse than the flu. After all, if Gwyneth Paltrow wasn’t safe, then what chance do we have?
With Magic Mike, he had men everywhere worried that our wives and girlfriends would leave us for Channing Tatum, Matthew McConaughey, or any other member of the cast.
Now, in Side Effects, he’s making us think that medications intended to help us could instead have adverse, unpredictable effects.
What is Soderbergh’s problem? Is he trying to make us all paranoid?
Well, if he is, it’s working.
This latest effort is the third film Soderbergh has made with writer Scott Z. Burns, with whom he also made Contagion and The Informant!
It focuses on Martin and Emily (Channing Tatum and Rooney Mara), a New York couple. He is fresh out of prison, where he spent four years for insider trading, but she, rather than being happy about his return, has grown anxious and sad, as she continues to deal with abandonment issues.
After driving her car into a wall in what appears to be a failed suicide attempt, she’s released into the care of Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), who prescribes a (fictional) mood-altering drug called Ablixa.
It works: Suddenly Emily is upbeat, positive, and a tiger in the sack (“Whoever makes this drug is going to be very rich,” a very happy Martin exclaims).
But something is still a little bit off about Emily, and one night she appears to be in a daze when she grabs a knife and kills … well, I won’t spoil the film by revealing who she kills.
Is Emily to blame for the murder, or was it the drugs that made her do it? And if it’s the latter, then what responsibility does Banks have for Martin’s death? Those are the questions the audience is left to answer in this twisty thriller that doesn’t always turn out the way you expect it will.
Soderbergh and Burns have some fun tweaking our expectations, not to mention the entire subculture of psychiatrists and others who are only too happy to prescribe their favorite go-to drug to patients, or to learn about some hot new pill that’ll bring them increased revenue or notoriety.
The film maintains an intense, discomforting tone — helped by Thomas Newman’s score — that draws you in but always keeps you at a distance.
And Mara, so good as Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, here plays a character sullen and paralyzed by her emotional issues one second, and … well, to finish that sentence might spoil more of the plot, so I’ll just say she’s very good — chillingly so — as are Law and Catherine Zeta-Jones, who plays a former psychiatrist of Emily’s who has a unique perspective on the case.
If this is indeed the director’s last big-screen film, as he has said it will be, then his swan song leaves us feeling mostly satisfied, but a bit uneasy. Should we believe this retirement hoo-hah? I don’t want to, but as long as Soderbergh stops making us so worried about our health and relationships, then I say he can head next in any artistic direction he wants.
I’m giving Side Effects a B+.
What’s your favorite Steven Soderbergh movie? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.