Even more so than Contagion, Steven Soderbergh’s self-professed final film, Side Effects, has reason to resemble a feature-length drug commercial. A psychopharmacology thriller about a woman, Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara), who fights severe anxiety following her husband’s release from prison for insider trading, and who commits murder after being prescribed a new drug whose side effects include sleepwalking, the film indulgently but justifiably coasts on the groggily antiseptic vibe of Soderbergh’s aesthetic doodling. Even the tinkly electronica of Thomas Newman’s extraordinary score, perversely evocative of the famous lullaby from Rosemary’s Baby, suggests a symptom of Emily’s jangly mental unease.
Indeed, Soderbergh winkingly envisions Emily as a modern-day Rosemary Woodhouse, beginning with the film’s svelte opening glide into the apartment building she shares with her husband (Channing Tatum). But it’s more purposefully in Emily’s relationship to her own Dr. Saperstein, Jude Law’s Jonathan Banks, a psychiatrist who tends to her following a suicide attempt and treats her “hopelessness” not with arrogance, but with the professional presumption of knowing what’s good for her, even if it does take a few false starts before he successfully provides her with the relief he no doubt believes that only medical science can provide. The devil, it would seem, is a society that’s sold its soul to the pharmaceutical industry.
Through his clever use of confined spaces and reflective surfaces, Soderbergh thrills in keying us to Emily’s off-kilter state of mind, but Side Effects would be boring if it merely struck Contagion‘s alarmist stance and stuck to it. The film flirts with being a hysteric cautionary tale about Big Pharma’s thuggishness only to reveal itself as a rebuke to the very cynicism about public health that Contagion so flagrantly peddles. Yes, Side Effects gooses us with horror-thriller genre scares (such as Emily’s distorted mug staring back at her in a mirror), but it’s ultimately most provocative for revealing (spoilers herein) that the devil is a woman, pathologically but ingeniously perverting everyone’s perception of her mental weakness to her villainous advantage.
Like Magic Mike, Side Effects is enlivened by Soderbergh’s jazzy style and laidback moralism, bringing to mind the work of another connoisseur of genre, Robert Altman. One of last year’s great movie moments was from Magic Mike, a breezy sequence set on a sand bar during which Soderbergh’s unmistakably Altmanesque camera and use of overlapping sonic textures elegantly and idiosyncratically ebbs and flows with the characters’ shifts in feeling. Side Effects similarly fixates on mundane incident, such as Emily spilling the contents of her purse prior to her suicide attempt, or the nuances of her perfectly boring trial (shades of Altman’s Gingerbread Man), though the purpose here isn’t to convey the necessity of community, but to smartly convince us that Emily is an innocent by virtue of her seemingly uncontrived banality.
That Emily’s persona is an act is surprising, though not as much as Soderbergh losing the courage of his aesthetic convictions once the true nature of her crime is revealed. What begins as a bodaciously styled woman’s picture transforms into a rather square wrong-man procedural that pushes too hard, and in multiple directions, on the metaphoric idea of the side effect. Rather than increasingly primp his frames with fervid stylistic curlicues to jive with the panic Jonathan feels as he’s pushed toward professional and personal annihilation, Soderbergh rather apathetically observes the character as he negotiates his way out of one tight squeeze after another. Unlike Brian De Palma’s Passion, a thematic kindred spirit of sorts, Side Effects unlocks its secrets without perniciousness, which is a terrible look for an ostensible swan song.