Side Effects Review

(3.5 STARS)

The auteur theory is a frequently debated and discussed topic within the film world. Behind the theory is the idea that an “auteur” is a prolific director whose work is easily identifiable based on just a few characteristics—themes, camerawork, music, regular collaborations with specific actors, and other things of this nature.

Opponents of the theory need only cite one director—Steven Soderbergh—when waylaying the claims of the theory’s believers. Side Effects is Soderbergh’s most recent and supposedly final film, and it should come as no surprise that it’s unlike anything he’s done before. With Scott Z. Burns penning the screenplay here, it seemed plausible that something similar to Soderbergh’s excellent Contagion, which Burns also wrote, would show its face. But no, Side Effects is its own movie within the Soderbergh canon. It’s a thoroughly Hitchcockian thriller that would make the Master of Suspense quite proud (or jealous).

Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) has waited four years for the day her husband, Martin (Channing Tatum), gets released from prison. So what does she do in the first few days of his release? She attempts suicide, driving her car into the wall of a parking garage. But she’s fine, and under the treatment of Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), she’s getting the medication that should allow her to function normally, if not 100% happily. Her body’s reaction to this particular medication is severe, however, and soon, she’s back to being a danger to herself and those around her. And what happens next threatens to bring down Dr. Banks, as well.

A pretty seismic shift occurs halfway through Side Effects as it transitions away from being a sort of social parable about the dangers of medication-happy doctors. Dr. Banks actually becomes the film’s focus as he gets caught in a crazy web of lies that he believes starts and ends with Emily’s former therapist, Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones). There are issues relating to big-pharma stock trading and doctor-patient sexual relations. Front and center, however, is Emily’s delicious tightrope walk between sanity and insanity and Banks’ quest to clear his name. He’s completely consumed by the case, and she’s in almost painfully over her head.

It’s Rooney Mara’s performance that packs the biggest punch, but the entire ensemble fits like a warm glove. She’s as good here as she’s ever been. Emily is a much more fragile figure than, say, Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but she too has an edge that surfaces only occasionally and always surprisingly. Jude Law, meanwhile, proves chameleonic. His disinterested, somewhat sleazy doctor becomes a tragic sleuth without missing a beat. Channing Tatum isn’t given much to do, though the career transformation he’s undergone in the past 18 months is undeniable. Catherine Zeta-Jones is a little black and white in a film that deals mostly in shades of gray, but her icy cool exterior cuts to the bone.

Thomas Newman provides the film’s score—probably the best of the year to date. Soderbergh (under pseudonyms, as always) does his own cinematography and editing—both of which build tension and keep you completely engaged. If this really is the director’s last feature film, he’ll be missed, but someone this good at his or her craft can never totally retire. I suspect we’ll be seeing a new film from Mr. Soderbergh within the next five years, and when we do, Side Effects will no longer be his incredible final film, but rather another excellent movie in a filmography littered with exceptional popcorn entertainment and unique masterpieces.

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