Side Effects

Steven Soderbergh holds things back. Especially since his love affair with the RED ONE digital camera began, he seems more inclined to show an insert than an emotion. The equally excellent and cold films Contagion, The Girlfriend Experience, and Haywire place emphasis on crisp seduction over performance, often leaving actors out of focus to give us a better look at their high-modern surroundings.

That said, it seems a little strange that he would choose to direct a film about psychotherapy and the internal as his last feature. Sex, Lies, and Videotape, however, his first feature film, opens with a therapy scene.  So maybe it is appropriate for the director to close this phase of his career with a few more sessions. Like Sex…, Side Effects is a film less about how we bare our souls to others than what we choose to hold back.

Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones) explains therapy thusly: “The cardiologist can see it coming. From the tests. But who can see the lies, or the past?” Trying to break down human behavior into cause and effect is an inexact science at best – and a dangerous one at worst – but it makes great material for a slick, taut thriller.

At its heart, Side Effects is about the relationship between Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) and her therapist, Jonathan Banks (Jude Law). Emily’s husband (Channing Tatum) has just returned home from a four-year prison sentence for insider trading, waltzing out head high in an Italian suit like a big, dumb Danny Ocean. Emily tells Dr. Banks that, “to a lot of people, you say insider trading and it might as well be murder.” Within the film’s first thirty minutes there is a murder, but it might as well be insider trading.

Dr. Banks prescribes a newly developed antidepressant for Emily’s suicidal ideations, and, while sleepwalking, she stabs her husband to death. A district attorney tells Banks that, “either she’s a murderer, or she’s the victim of her medical treatment.” Banks begins an investigation in an effort to find someone, anyone else to take the responsibility.

Soderbergh knows that Jude Law isn’t beautiful anymore, and that Rooney Mara is. His camera likes to linger on their faces, particularly Mara’s, which is used here better than ever before. Hers is too good a face to leave out of focus. Time has twisted Jude Law’s mouth into a sour pucker, and we can immediately tell that Banks would do anything necessary to fund his new downtown loft, his recently laid-off wife and stepson, and the lease on his BMW.  There’s something intelligent but unsavory about him.  And there is something arresting and unpredictable about Mara.

Playing Law and Mara off of one another is nothing short of genius. This isn’t a thriller where the good guy hunts the bad guy. This is a thriller where selfish people reach new heights of selfishness trying to protect what is theirs; and that is part of what makes it so good. With no characters operating within a defined moral framework, it is nearly impossible to know what anyone is liable to do. As the film speeds toward its conclusion, the twists come a mile a minute. Dr. Banks tells Emily that “depression is the inability to construct a future.” Maybe that’s just a symptom of watching a good thriller.