Having just seen Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects, I feel the need to issue a retraction. The ten or so people who regularly read my column might recall that, in my review for Zero Dark Thirty, I pessimistically claimed that we likely wouldn’t see any good dramas land in theaters until at least March. Well, I was wrong. Dead wrong. Side Effects, which premieres all over the country this weekend, is one of the best murder mysteries I’ve seen in a good long while.
Written by Scott Z. Burns, whose last project was the brilliant Contagion, Side Effects has been sold as a thriller that exposes the dark underbelly of the pharmaceutical industry. However, that’s a little misleading. Side Effects is ultimately a first rate noir in the vein of Double Indemnity.
The film opens on a New York apartment complex, the camera takes us within the confines of one of the apartments, revealing the sight of a grisly murder scene. The story then jumps back in time three months where a young woman, Emily (Rooney Mara), is visiting her husband (played by Channing Tatum) at a minimum security prison. The husband, it turns out, is a former Wall Street big shot who has been disgraced after being convicted of insider trading. However, his parole is eminent, and Emily prepares for his return by getting a job of her own. Everything appears to be looking up for the young couple.
That’s until Emily tries to kill herself by driving her car straight into a concrete wall. Tipped off by the fact Emily never attempted to apply the brakes or swerve out of the way, the authorities assign Emily to the care of a psychiatrist by the name of Dr. Banks (Jude Law). He immediately pegs her as suicidally depressed and begins prescribing Zoloft for her. Emily claims that the medication isn’t working and that her suicidal tendencies are only increasing; upon the urging of Emily’s previous psychiatrist (a conniving Catherine Zeta Jones), Dr. Banks places the young woman on an experimental drug.
The medication appears to work. Emily claims to feel happier, and, to the satisfaction of her husband, her sex drive increases. However, Emily also begins sleepwalking, and during one of these sleepwalking episodes, she stabs her husband to death with a kitchen knife. Now the girl stands accused of murder, and everyone begins scrutinize the doctor who cavalierly placed her on an extremely volatile medication. Is the patient responsible for murdering or her husband or was it the drug?
All questions are eventually answered, but this initial ambiguity is emphasized through the casting of Rooney Mara as Emily. Here, she gives a fantastic performance as the meek wife turned femme fatale. Mara, sharing roughly the same delicate facial features as Audrey Hepburn, exudes the aura of a fragile victim rather than that of a calculating predator. One character even refers to Emily as being a wounded bird. And yet, anyone who has seen David Fincher’s version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo knows that Mara has the tools to play the role of an aggressive, borderline psychopath. The performance requires a tightrope walk and Rooney Mara is one of only a handful of young actresses in Hollywood capable of pulling it off.
Jude Law carries much of Side Effects with the sort of desperate, obsessive performance that would be at home in a classic Hitchcock film. Watching Law, you get the feeling that his psychiatrist-turned-pariah is a fundamentally decent man who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. He comes across as vulnerable without being pathetic. It’s one of the best performances of the man’s career. And Catherine Zeta Jones rounds out the primary cast with an enigmatic, serpentine performance that also registers as one of the best performances of her career.
As for Steven Sodebergh’s direction, I don’t know if there’s anything left to say. Side Effects is reportedly Sodebergh’s swan song as a director, and he’s built a strong reputation over the past several decades. The man’s a born artist and it would take someone with more talent or training than myself to adequately dissect the aesthetic beauty of the picture.
Side Effects is so cleverly written, well directed, and well acted that I honestly find myself at a loss as to how to properly describe it. It’s one of those rare films that left me absolutely giddy after having seen it. It’s the kind of sharp film that only comes out of Hollywood two or three times a year if we’re lucky; it’s also the kind of well-crafted film that never comes out of Hollywood during the doldrums of January and February. If you’re going to see any movie this season, make sure you catch this one.