Steven Soderbergh would have you believe that Side Effects will be his last directorial effort. Whether this is actually true remains to be seen (people retiring from show business seem to take retirement about as seriously as professional wrestlers, which is to say not at all), but when taking Mr. Soderbergh at face value, Side Effects is yet another strong genre effort from the acclaimed director. The genre of choice here is the not quite often plumbed prescription drug thriller, concerning Rooney Mara’s Emily Taylor, a deeply depressed and suicidal woman attempting to cope with her illness through drugs. The film also stars Channing Tatum as her husband, Jude Law as her psychiatrist, and Catherine Zeta-Jones as a competing psychiatrist. Things go south when a new, somewhat experimental drug has deadly side effects, but as those who have seen the trailer would expect, nothing is exactly what it seems.
Soderbergh and his cast are aided by a crackling script from Scott Z. Burns, who had previously worked with him on Contagion and The Informant!. The heavy lifting for a film like this comes directly from the script, as the propulsion of the film comes from its dialogue. Burns’ screenplay moves at a kinetic, yet comfortable pace, covering huge swaths of plot and exposition without dragging or confusing the viewer. In many ways, Side Effects has more in common with a film like Fight Club or even The Sixth Sense, as there is a central twist that occurs near the end of the film that is such a game changer that the film will play out entirely differently on a second viewing. Such a twist can often be dangerous territory, often serving to undermine the previous plot for the purposes of a gimmick or a shock. Side Effects manages to succeed entirely, and is a film I expect to thoroughly enjoy when revisited.
Rooney Mara is very much the chief reason the film in general and the twist specifically work so well. Her character is central to the veracity of the plot. In her third major high profile role, we see another aspect of her acting prowess, clearly altogether different from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but also notably different from her role in The Social Network. This is Mara’s first role as a true adult, and her effortless combination of both maturity and the weakness and vulnerability of suffering from depression. It is her most fully realized role to date, and seems to cement her as one of the up and coming actresses to watch for a new generation.
Side Effects capably fits into the legacy of Soderbergh’s filmography, and while it might not be the sort of grand sendoff we might expect from a competent and accomplished filmmaker, it does offer a genuinely enjoyable film experience, and a more than acceptable use of your time.