Pharmaceutical drugs have had a constantly shifting public persona. One minute, an entire generation of children with ADD transform into complacent Ritalin zombies, and the next they’re sleep-walking and putting hands in the proverbial cookie jar while the public decides who to blame. Do we blame the drug itself or the doctor who prescribed it? Versatile director Stephen Soderbergh doesn’t have an answer for us (at least not a clear one), but crafts some good ol‘ fashioned suspense with conspiracy, mind games, and plenty of Rx into his new thriller Side Effects in slow burning yet briskly paced fashion.
Martin Taylor (Channing Tatum) is released from prison after a four year sentence for insider trading, and depressed wife Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) sees his return as her new lease on life. After an apparent suicide attempt proves otherwise, Emily begins seeing maverick psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), who prescribes her an experimental antidepressant called Ablixa at the request of her previous shrink Victoria (Catherine Zeta-Jones). When said medication brings about sleep-walking episodes, Emily stabs her husband to death in her sleep, compromising herself and Dr. Banks and setting a wicked conspiracy in motion.
Effects exudes a very old school style of suspense that would make Hitchcock blush, thanks to screenwriter Scott Z. Burns, fooling us with what appears to be a medical drama before pulling the rug out from underneath the audience and going into twist-filled taut suspense thriller mode in ways that will even surprise seasoned cinema sleuths. Soderbergh’s directorial eye has always had a knack for bringing out the best in genre films such as these, as he proved with last year’s Haywire, and his slick yet steady hand proves once again to be a winning combination with Peter Andrews‘ matte focus-based cinematography.
The performances of Soderbergh’s ensemble cast are what really help Side Effects transcend the sillier conventions of its genre; all four are hiding a part of themselves from us and playing their roles straight. The psychiatric calm of Law’s Dr. Banks veils a sheer determination and survival instinct that pushes him to the edge, while Mara’s dead-eyed and unaware Emily and Zeta-Jones‘ conniving Victoria dance their own respective death routines with Banks as truths become revealed. Tatum’s role as Martin is brief but dignified, playing a devoted husband who is ready to leave his dark past behind to create a brighter future.
While not a monumental success on the level of Soderbergh’s Traffic or even his Oceans 11/12, he still proves that he has the power to add style to a decades old formula and still make it work. Side Effects, while low-key and not showy, knows when to keep you guessing and when to floor you with a prescription of shock and awe.