Warning: This review gives away a major plot twist in the film. Do not read after the spoiler alert if you wish to be surprised.
An early front-runner for the best movie of 2013, Side Effects is a bit of a throwback. It reminds me of psychological thrillers of the early 1990s like Basic Instinct and Final Analysis, movies in which the psychology was just a threadbare excuse for serving up a lurid stew of murder, kinky sex, and actresses acting crazy. Because this is a Steven Soderbergh film, the material has a gritty look and is infused with some piquant observations about the world in which the story takes place. At its heart, though, this is just a trashy pulp thriller — and a pretty good one at that.
The story begins with Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara), a young graphic designer in New York whose struggles with depression overwhelm her when she’s subjected to the stress of reuniting with her stockbroker husband Martin (Channing Tatum), who is released from prison after a four-year stint for insider trading. After trying to kill herself in a parking garage, she lands in a hospital, where attending psychiatrist Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) takes her on as a patient and eventually puts her on a medication called Ablixa that has just come on the market. At first, the pill acts like a wonder drug, restoring Emily to her former happy self and her marriage to its idyllic state. After a while, though, she starts to exhibit some scary behavior under the drug.
This early part of the movie plays like a careful character study of a person dealing with depression. The conscientiousness of Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (who partnered with Soderbergh on Contagion and The Informant!) leads them to some informative asides on how psychiatric drugs are marketed and an intriguing line of dialogue from the British expat Banks about different attitudes toward psychiatry in Britain and America. Still, it’s Mara who holds the movie’s first half together. Looking elfin and fragile, she vividly captures the peaks and valleys of Emily’s condition, falling apart at a Wall Street party, having trouble focusing under established antidepressants, regaining her equilibrium under Ablixa. Her performance here is the best work of her still-nascent career.
Spoiler alert: The movie radically changes character halfway through, when a sleepwalking Emily robotically stabs Martin to death, a development that’s hinted at in the movie’s opening sequence. The perspective then shifts, and the main character becomes Dr. Banks. Compassionate and scrupulous but also self-centered and arrogant, the doctor suddenly finds himself buffeted by external forces: his distraught patient and Martin’s mother (Ann Dowd), who both publicly blame him and Ablixa for what has happened; the pharmaceutical company, which wants to protect its bottom line; the police and prosecutors who pressure Banks to testify against his patient; Banks’ partners in his psychiatric practice, who want him and his bad publicity to go away; and Emily’s icy former therapist (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who seems to be operating on her own hidden agenda.
At this point, the movie changes into a detective thriller, as Banks starts to suspect himself the victim of an elaborate setup. His desperation leads him to pull off a ballsy stunt with a video camera and a drugged Emily that proves one of his points and also causes a prosecutor (Michael Nathanson) to have a “Dear God, this is unethical” reaction. Taking up an increasingly lonely quest to clear his name, the doctor determinedly sorts through the tangle of interests arrayed against him. The plot has a few more venomous twists that are skillfully laid out for us, and it makes for riveting viewing trying to follow the doctor’s attempts to process each ground-shaking revelation. The role requires every ounce of Law’s nimbleness, and the actor successfully gives the impression of a man who might be just clever enough to figure out what a fix he’s in. There’s a primal satisfaction in a story like this that invites you to try to guess where it’s headed next (although it makes it difficult for me to fully discuss the movie without giving too much away). A case study in how to extricate oneself from a tight spot, Side Effects is a thoroughly disreputable piece of fun.
Starring Rooney Mara, Channing Tatum, and Jude Law. Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Written by Scott Z. Burns. Rated R.