It has been 4 long years since Emily Taylor's (Rooney Mara) husband Martin Taylor (Channing Tatum) was arrested and convicted of an insider trading scandal and now Martin is finally being released from prison. Shortly after being released, Emily seemingly not in her right mind, drives her car directly into a brick wall. She soon falls under the care of Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), a very ambitious psychiatrist who is on the cutting edge when it comes to new pharmaceutical treatments. After consulting with Emily's former psychiatrist Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), Dr. Banks decides to put Emily on a new form of medication which is supposed to help her deal with her depression but instead causes severe side effects that Emily has no control over.
Growing ever closer to his self imposed early retirement from filmmaking, director Steven Soderbergh is clearly still more than capable of delivering a gripping film going experience like no other. Combining the current over indulgence our society has with prescription drugs with a psychological tale of disturbing realities, he creates a thriller that is both topical and endlessly fascinating to watch unfold. Featuring four actors all delivering grade A performances and the director's usual solid filmmaking techniques, "Side Effects" takes an already intriguing premise and turns it seamlessly into a film experience that will keep you guessing at every turn.
Soderbergh has stated that he is retiring because he is simply tired of the process, he still loves to create things however (as expressed with his need to paint) and it shows with his latest film, "Side Effects". For a man that is supposedly losing touch with that special drive needed to follow through on his projects, he shows no signs of that here. As per usual, every frame in every scene has been labored over with the meticulous touch of a true artist. The trademark color palette, the excellent cast and a screenplay that takes a genre that has been beaten to death and puts its own spin on it, it is more than clear that Soderbergh was fully on board with this film both creatively and as a filmmaker.
Like last years "Haywire", Soderbergh's sensibilities shine through and turn what would normally be an ordinary thriller into something special. With "Side Effects" the skilled filmmaker delivers on every promise he makes as the complex layers to this deceptively simple story are peeled away like an onion to reveal something more sinister, something more twisted than just a story about a woman suffering from depression, this is a story about treachery and deceit in their purest forms. The films brief, but very effective, examination of our over reliance on prescription drugs to take away our pain and grief could almost be a stand alone film in its own right (and probably should considering how intriguing the concept is here), but Soderbergh uses it masterfully to set up this conspiracy theory thriller that will take you on a ride of lies, double talk and hidden truths that are just as fun to discover as they are to understand.
Beyond the director's obvious skill behind the camera, the films success ultimately lies in the hands of its four principal actors, even more so than usual. Jude Law is an actor who has tried very hard to carve himself out a niche in Hollywood, bouncing back and forth between romance and more dramatic fair, he finds a very comfortable place in the role of Dr. Banks, a man whose over confidence in himself and the drugs he prescribes eventually proves to be his downfall. Watching him transform from this somewhat cocky man who sees his patients as more of a stepping stone to greater things into a man who begins to unravel as his world comes crushing down on him is one of the actors more refined and memorable performances. His inner strength and determination to discover the truth is nailed perfectly by Law's ability to seem both vulnerable and in control of his actions which makes him an absolute joy to watch here.
Rooney Mara as his patient is equally as fascinating as the disturbed and enigmatic Emily. Coming off her Oscar nominated role in "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo", she shows a different side to her that is both startling and reserved. Her character is the central focal point of the film but is also the one most clouded in mystery. Some might say they know where her character is headed from minute one, but truth be told her performance doesn't give away even the slightest hint of what her ultimate goals are or even if there is an ultimate goal. She is a frustrating presence in that respect but she is also the corner stone to which the films many layers reveal themselves and as you begin to discover her secrets she becomes even more fascinating to watch.
Both Catherine Zeta-Jones and Channing Tatum serve more as supporting actors to both Law and Mara, but that doesn't detract from their effectiveness in these somewhat smaller roles. Soderbergh has a fascination with certain actors and when that happens we see them appear in nearly all of his films. His latest venture is of course Tatum who has now in appeared in three of the director's recent films, the aforementioned "Haywire", last years surprise success "Magic Mike" and now with "Side Effects". The two seem to work well with each other and Tatum once again delivers a performance that helps put those dreary rom coms in the rearview mirror. Zeta-Jones is also a welcome addition to the cast and her small but effective moments on screen help add to the already complex web of lies that Law discovers through his investigations as the two work together to learn about Emily's sorted past.
If the lack of any real point by point analysis of the film seems strange at this time, then please accept this apology. The reason for this lack of clarity is simply because with a film like "Side Effects", where your enjoyment of it rests on the fact that the less you know going in the better the experience will be, there is really no need to go into very many details. All you need to know is what was explained in that opening synopsis, if you need to know more then you may always watch the trailer which unfortunately spells out the entire film for you ruining most of its delectable secrets. Rest assured knowing that the film that Soderbergh made here is good even if you know everything going in, but it is even better when you approach it with a blank slate.
Before we end this review, there is one minor nitpick that must be mentioned and one that may sound a bit hypocritical after all this lavish praise of the films many strengths. As a thriller, the film works and works very well. But, it is somewhat of a disappointment when it is revealed that the film is more than happy to focus on the simpler thriller storyline as opposed to the more intriguing questions posed by the film's characters near the beginning. Once we see Emily on the drug Ablixa and the side effects it has not only on her but the entire medical system, there is a moment when the film brushes upon some very tantalizing subject matter. While the path the film ultimately went down was fun and enjoyable with nary a flaw to be seen, it was slightly disappointing that Soderbergh didn't seize the chance to explore more indepth the idea of a person's guilt given their state of mind while on prescribed drugs. It's a little saddening but by no means a flaw of the film but still something that needed to be mentioned as the one and only standout abnormality in an otherwise solid little thriller.
Steven Soderbergh set out to make a smart, sexy, stylish and intriguing thriller with "Side Effects" and that is exactly what he did. If there were any flaws to the films logic, character motivations or technical merits then they were not noticed by this reviewer. As someone who prides themselves on wanting their films to always make some sort of sense and constantly on the lookout for any lapses in logic, it was refreshing to have a film experience that left little doubt that there were any plot holes or bizarre coincidences to derail its expertly written and paced story about drugs and consequences. "Side Effects" is a not only the best film Soderbergh has made in years but it is also the best film released this year so far. We can only hope that he doesn't stay retired for long because it would be a shame to no longer have films like this to look forward to from the audacious filmmaker.