Steven Soderbergh is one of cinema's all time great magicians. He isn't just one of our most versatile directors, he's a bonafide polymath, frequently working as his own editor and DP under none-too-secret pseudonyms. And you should see his latest trick, “Side Effects.” He's taken what, on paper, boils down to an extra ridiculous episode of “Law and Order: Criminal Intent” and passes it off as high cinematic art. It is a bugfu*k crazy yarn, more like what you'd expect out of Brian De Palma, but with that ineffable hum – the Soderbergh snap – the cool camera, exquisite framing, shallow focus and scenes that don't last a frame longer than they have to.
“Side Effects” is a movie that changes a lot and moves quickly. Each of its turns are terrific. Teaming once more with Scott Z. Burns, writer of “The Informant!” and, more germane to this film, “Contagion,” “Side Effects” is a film that won't sit still. It's more than “just when you think you know what's happening, THIS happens.” This is a rare case of the very genre of the film we're dealing with transforming without warning.
We begin as a sophisticated drama. Rooney Mara is trying to create a welcoming return for Channing Tatum. He is a white collar criminal, ending a prison sentence. She was a wife in Connecticut, now forced to live in New York City and work at a graphic design studio. (It's telling when the typical bourgeois fantasy is considered slumming it.) Mara's history of depression suddenly flares up with a spontaneous suicide attempt and now she's under the care of honest, earnest psychiatrist Jude Law.
He's honest, but he's not a saint. When the free lunches come from drug companies, he takes them, as well as a well-compensated opportunity to introduce patients to new anti-depressants. He's above board, though. He makes all the required disclosures, but is this really doing enough, especially when the safety of his patients' minds are at stake?
The drug in question isn't what Mara's on, though. She ends up on a different, fairly new pill, a medication recommended to Law by Catherine Zeta-Jones, Mara's old doctor from Connecticut. This is what sets Mara off into dark places and “Side Effects” into the loopiest psychological thriller since “Spellbound.”
I don't bring up Hitchcock lightly. By the end of “Side Effects” one must embrace it as a big, melodramatic spectacle or not at all. What's such a slick move, however, is how we get there. I must be more careful about spoilers than usual here, but there are steps along the way where “Side Effects” tried on multiple outfits for size.
The upscale, economics-saturated drama (quite reminiscent in tone to “The Girlfriend Experience”) segues into suspense, then a legal yarn, then an “issue” picture and then, for a brief glistening moment, a tale about a man ruined by uncertainty, slowly going mad with paranoia.
Jude Law, who slowly reveals himself to be the film's protagonist, is the victim of horrible circumstance and just can't accept his fate and move on. He begins the film eloquent and charming in a stylish office, then becomes a raving, unshaven nut shoving laptops in front of his wife's face and screaming about 9/11.
But is that where we leave him? No! You've no idea how this is going to wind up. Or, you do, if you've ever seen a simple mystery thriller before – it's just that you didn't know this was a mystery thriller, not with the artful way you see the back of a witnesses' head in crisp focus while the jury is a group of smeared, blurry faces. Soderbergh's near-pointillist camera is in philosophic harmony with Burns' script which parachutes in and out of scenes to reveal their essence. It's makes for invigorating viewing on its own, but reveals itself as essential in the final scenes.
You may come away from “Side Effects” calling it a potboiler, but there are fascinating themes throughout. In addition to the “Contagion”-like “this could really happen” fear-mongering about psychological pharmaceuticals, sure to be the basis of most press-tour talking points, there are delicious details about the oblique nature of truth. On a more surface level there's how psychiatric science will always have a great deal of mystery (no one REALLY knows why electro-shock therapy does what it does), but the film gets heavy, man, and anyone who thinks the revelations of the script's ending are a cop-out should be referred directly back to the script. You can't ever REALLY know what others are thinking, even when you think you are seeing their true selves.