Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects opens with a shot of a model sailboat resting on a chair alongside a wrapped package. The camera pans out from the innocuous image and traces the floor with its lens, capturing two pools of thick blood and the unsettling sight of footprints that have smeared the red along the hallway. In his visual prologue, Soderbergh sets up a dichotomy that persists through this prescription pill-themed thriller, a film about placid surfaces and the unsettling mysterious motivations that boil beneath.
It takes about the half the film to determine whose blood is on the floor, though we begin to suspect from the outset. Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) meets her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) just before he is released from a penitentiary where he has been locked up for insider trading. The transition back to domestic life – albeit one stripped of the wealth the young couple enjoyed before the FBI nabbed the crooked broker – is uneasy. There’s dispassionate sex, a quiet detachment on the part of Emily. Then, rather suddenly, the young woman slams on her car throttle and rams into the wall of her apartment’s underground parking garage.
Emily is clearly mentally disturbed, but the doctor she meets in the hospital, Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) takes a risk on her. He has every reason to have her committed to a mental institution in order to protect her against her own suicidal tendencies, but opts (at her insistence) to allow her to go home with a full dosage of anti-depressants, which prove ineffectual. We watch Emily cycle through periods of depression and potential self-destruction, while Dr. Banks struggles to find the right medical cocktail to keep her straight. He finally hits the mark with a new, heavily-marketed drug that seems to right Emily’s mind, while provoking very strange behavior.
In 2011, Steven Soderbergh told the world he is going to retire from making movies, supposedly after Side Effects. I hope he’s bluffing. There are few filmmakers active today equipped with the Hollywood clout and artistic sophistication to make an adult-themed movies that are so consistently fascinating and visually refined, despite their varied flaws. In Side Effects, the director does a masterful job of crafting a plot that unveils itself like Russian Dolls, each plot line breaking down to reveal a more complex narrative hidden underneath. In terms of its wit and quick-beating narrative, the film, at times, has the feel of something out of classical Hollywood (Barbara Stanwyck or Mary Astor could have slid into these roles), while maintaining Soderbergh’s visually sexed and sleek style. The director’s camera, with its slightly askew angles, continual focus pulls, golden hues, and slow-panning reveals, manages to hold us tight to its characters with a particular feel for their emotional resonance, while nonetheless obscuring some of their intensions and personal history. As a result, he can twist us any way he likes, casting out our expectations before reeling them in again.
As expected in a twisting intrigue bound up in questions of psychosis and paranoia, Side Effects traipses into One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest territory. Characters move in and out of various incarcerations – jail, a mental asylum – and yet Soderbergh places us not in the position of the victimized inmate, but rather behind the curtain, exposed to the motivations and methods of the (seemingly justified) abusers. It is a curious shift that places the viewer on tricky moral ground, and the physicality of incarceration becomes less restrictive than the way information and manipulation force the film’s characters into more terrifying and inescapable corners.
Where Soderbergh’s style nearly always seems to falter, however, is in the penetrability of his characters. Side Effects is, yet again, a play on surfaces – both psychological and aesthetic – and as a result his egg shell characters often feel blown hollow. Side Effects also falters is in its incessant explication, which turns the film’s final act into a prolonged take on the Usual Suspects-style plot rehash, with each twist and turn carefully marked out. It is a bit of a letdown after being so craftily strung-along for most of the film, but the miss-step also feel endemic to Soderbergh’s purpose. By the end we must know what has really been driving Side Effects’ goings-on, not merely because the vicarious experience of onscreen revenge can taste so sweet, but because the director seems intent on turning a familiar kind of authoritarian paranoia on its head. When all is said and done, we suddenly find ourselves in a world in which invisible string-pulling financial brokers are more of a threat than any menacing Nurse Ratched.