Early on in Steven Soderbergh’s latest (and supposedly last) feature, there is a deliberate car crash, one which the driver prepares for by fastening their seatbelt. Thinking back on the movie now, this jumps out as a pretty good metaphor for what the director does – he’s going to put the audience through a thorough emotional and intellectual ringer, though he’s ready for it. I’m going to tread lightly in terms of plot discussion since much of the pleasure I derived from Side Effects was the result of just allowing myself to be led by a master filmmaker.
Rooney Mara is the first character we meet, a sorrowful and anxious seeming newlywed. The anxiety is quickly explained by the impending release of her husband (Channing Tatum), recently incarcerated for white collar insider trading offenses. The two face what has to be considered the expected difficulties of resuming an interrupted romance – making small talk when you want to discuss everything of importance, rediscovering one another physically, the tricky balancing act of shame/forgiveness for him and her, respectively. While this all plays out for a detached, clinical camera – the movie also informs us that there are psychological and pharmaceutical concerns as well. Mara, who has had past psychiatrists and drug regimens to keep her depression manageable, now has to reclaim her role as the lovely partner of Tatum’s eager to return businessman, though doesn’t seem to have the energy.
To help with her mounting dread, Mara goes to see a psychiatrist (Jude Law) who very quickly enlists her to partake in a clinical trial of a new drug, Ablixa. Law uses his natural charm and on screen intelligence to great use here, projecting the potent combination of earnestness and manipulation that makes the viewer constantly guess his true motivations. The new drug appears to work for Mara, as evidenced by the fact she transforms from listless to voracious in the bedroom and now enjoys strolls with the husband in the afternoons whereas previously she’d be under the covers. A minor drawback to her newfound lust for life is some attacks of sleepwalking. This appears a small price to pay for an altogether drastic mood overhaul, though once her somnambulism leads to a serious incident and liability has to be assigned, the movie really gets going.
Soderbergh uses the situation – which reads like a great ethical dilemma / thought problem – to explore who would really be considered culpable for an incident involving someone under the influence in this way. Is it the victim? Can the faulty wiring of the brain be considered criminal on its own? What about when hypnotized by medication? If the medication bears some of the blame, then surely the pharmaceutical companies and those testing the drug retain a degree of culpability? And speaking of those public testers (Law), were they adequately charting their patient’s progress? And in a most welcome exploration, what about the prior psychiatrists for patients?
Reuniting again with her longtime collaborator, Catherine Zeta-Jones is delightfully ruthless as Mara’s prior therapist. Herself most aware of the shield a therapist needs to erect and maintain, she disperses information, mostly to Law, in maddeningly vague chunks. As the story travels its circuitous path, the audience is treated to the various motivations of all these characters. Mara’s despondency and helplessness in the face of her illness; Law’s eagerness to please and advance and then manic desperation to save face; Zeta-Jones’ frigid refusal to concede ground or assume fault. Soderbergh offers us a number of great characters who, though the inciting incident is somewhat of a stretch, are still very real personalities one can see left to drift in the wake of a happening such as this. It’s never suggested that pharmaceuticals are anything beyond a serious business, and in that pursuit of the bottom line little folks are always going to be marginalized. Does having an illness make you a bad person out of the gate? Does a willingness to embrace medicinal solutions imply a lack of fortitude? Are therapists who would sooner prescribe than diagnose the real problem? These are questions not so much directly raised as indirectly touched upon, and all the better for it considering the movie is born of the world of fiction and, at least in my opinion, thankfully ultimately retreats there. If there is to be a serious exploration via movies into those questions (and there probably already is/are), best to let the real parties speak for their sides.
All in all, Mara is excellent in a really difficult role – alternating as needed from lethargic, morose, pacified, indifferent, frustrated, content, excited – an impressive swath of the personality spectrum. Law, Zeta-Jones, and Tatum all round out the rest of the principals solidly. The emphasis on blacks, whites, and greys in the color scheme help underline the moral no-mans-land these people tend to occupy and passively illuminate the movie’s neo-noir-ish attitude – manic sleuthing, labyrinthine plot and femme fatales oh my. And when the movie arrives at its final twist, we’re reminded yet again, though we shouldn’t have to be, that a really good story told well is hard to beat. If this is Soderbergh’s actual swan song then I’m going to miss him. While I don’t know that I’d consider any of his most recent releases (Contagion, Haywire, Side Effects) absolutely critical, they are all deftly handled, interesting, at times exhilarating and generally just a good time. Those are attributes of movies which will always be missed.