It's very fitting that for what he claims is his last film, director Steven Soderbergh has chosen to harken back in many ways to the film that put him on the map in the first place, that being Sex, Lies and Videotape. His new film Side Effects, which he shot on digital video, contains a healthy dose of sex, lies, and yes, even videotape. It's a compelling psychological thriller that plays out like a film noir, albeit with some social commentary about the state of mental health in America and the dependence on pharmaceuticals thrown in for good measure.
The film begins with Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) eagerly awaiting the release of her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) from prison, where he has served a 4 year sentence for insider trading. Unfortunately for Emily something isn't quite right with her, and it turns out she is suffering from bouts of anxiety and deep depression. After an apparent suicide attempt she starts to seek counsel from Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), a psychiatrist who puts her on a series of anti-depression drugs that don't fix the problem. After being asked to participate in a clinical trial for a new drug called Ablixa, Dr. Banks decides to put Emily on the drug. He also seeks guidance from Emily's former therapist (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who also happens to be a big proponent of Ablixa. Pretty soon Emily shows marked improvement in her mood and her sex life, but it also has a dangerous side effect which causes her to have very active sleepwalking incidents. During one of these sleepwalking episodes something really terrible occurs which I can't tell you because I don't want to ruin the rest of the picture for you. In fact I can't really say too much more for fear of giving anything away, but let's just say that this is the point where things really start to get interesting and just leave it at that.
Soderbergh does a superb job of drawing the viewer into these characters lives and by pacing the film as methodically as he does he allows us time to fully engage with the story. I appreciated the fact that he didn't get too preachy by making this solely an indictment on the pharmaceutical industry and the overwhelming dependency we have to self medicate nowadays. Instead, he chose to make a twist filled mystery that actually delves into sleazy b-movie territory at one point, and that's a good thing. Side Effects is definitely not predictable and the film goes in some very intriguing directions.
The performances are stellar in Side Effects, especially Jude Law and Rooney Mara. Mara, who was great in the David Fincher version of Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, is excellent as Emily, playing her with a cool detachment as she wanders around in a pharmaceutically induced daze. I wish I could say more about Jude Law but that would involve some spoilers so you'll just have to take my word for it that he does a fine job here.
I thought that Side Effects was a very intelligently written mystery thriller that kept me guessing throughout how it would all play out. I really enjoy films where you can't predict every beat of the story and it's not blatantly obvious who the main antagonist is. A little subtlety can go a long way sometimes.
Side Effects is a cracking good yarn and if it is indeed Soderbergh's last film (not including his Liberace biopic, Behind the Candelabra, which airs on HBO later this year), then he is definitely going out on a high note.
Seek out Side Effects.
I give Side Effects an 8 out of 10.