While director Steven Soderbergh's latest film—which he has announced will be his final work—appears to be a horror movie about medication gone wrong, it is more of a psychological thriller. At once thought-provoking and mind-boggling, “Side Effects,” released Feb. 8, starts out as a poignant, albeit somewhat misguided, commentary on the effects of antipsychotic medication. Midway through, it pivots into a mind war between patient Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) and psychiatrist Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), lurching the audience into what feels like a second movie.
“Side Effects” picks up as Emily's husband (Channing Tatum) is released from the prison where he has spent the greater part of their marriage. Her depression bubbles to the surface upon his release, and after an apparent suicide attempt, she seeks help from Dr. Banks.
Mara is convincingly lost and hopeless as Emily, as she struggles to find the right treatment to cope with her depression. When she finally appears to be stabilizing, she takes a turn for the worse in a twist that may be a side effect of the medication Banks has given her.
Soderbergh has taken the psychological thriller route before, most notably in his 2011 release, “Contagion.” He is by no means going out with a bang—but he does, as usual, succeed in captivating the audience with the emotional weight with which he manages to imbue his films.
Writer Scott Burns seems to be making an anti-medication commentary, painting a terrifying picture of chemical alterations gone wrong. It is clear from the get-go that the medications are altering Emily for the worse.
For those with a little more faith in antidepressants, the film abruptly changes tone. With little warning and with little to tie the two pieces together except the score, “Side Effects” switches from a troubling but smart narrative to a crazed manhunt for sanity and answers. Any hint of a hidden agenda on Burns' part falls away, and keeping up with the twists becomes a bit of a struggle.
But Law and Mara shine through the film's ups and downs. The two have an understated chemistry that raises the stakes of the doctor-patient relationship. Mara's bird-like fragility draws the audience to her pain, gaining the sympathy we are convinced she needs, while Law's calm and soothing demeanor renders him an ideal psychiatrist. They both set emotional traps that the viewer falls into easily and unknowingly.
Emily's enigmatic former psychiatrist (Catherine Zeta-Jones) surreptitiously weaves herself into the main action. Her performance may start off somewhat blandly, but beware of her seemingly calm demeanor.
Tatum, who worked with Soderbergh previously on the surprise 2012 hit “Magic Mike,” is at best a harmless addition to the cast. It is difficult to read this ex-inside trader as he quickly fades into the background.
“Side Effects” comes to conclusions that answer entirely different questions than those posed at the beginning of the film. Audiences can leave feeling satisfied, but only if they forget about the first half of the film. Mara, Law, and Zeta-Jones' scheming holds the audience's attention, and by the end, the audience is invested in the story that has developed. Still, questions surrounding the cost and effectiveness of potentially mind-altering medications are left dangling in the air, ripe for debate.
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