When all is said and done and his IMDb filmography list reaches its final reward, Steven Soderbergh may earn his laurel as the most flexible of American directors, able and determined to stretch into diverse corners of cinematic possibilities. Last year’s model was the surprisingly good Magic Mike, with Channing Tatum as a soul-searching male stripper, and this year the genre wheel turns to thriller fare, with the not-as-surprisingly-good Side Effects.
This delicate, maze-like film involves a slippery beast of a narrative, for which Soderbergh applies a subtle, sturdy touch, recognizing the truism that, in the best thrillers, things are not necessarily what they seem and twists and cliffhangers must be deployed carefully for maximum effect. At some level, the film behaves like an indictment of the pharmaceutical industry and the panacea-like promises of newer, better drugs. The fictional SSRI antidepressant in question, Ablixa, is advertised with the tag “take back tomorrow.” But the tomorrows in Scott Z. Burns’s clever script turn dark as the plot thickens into a tangle of “side effects” and backstories.
Jude Law is the right actor for the gig as a relatively cool-headed psychiatrist caught in a quandary of complicity in a murder and potential dirty-dealings plot. His detective instinct, in the effort to clear his name, goes deep into some moral murk, while we’re skillfully drawn into the suspense puzzle. Catherine Zeta-Jones puts her acumen for dastardly sheen to good use in the film, and Rooney Mara — playing a role wildly different than her kick-ass work in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo — nails her part as the presumably depressed and vacant-eyed zombie.
At one point in the film, the telling point is made that, unlike other more accountable and traceable areas of the medical field, in therapy and in the mental-illness realm, “We can’t see the lies, the past, the sadness.” Voilà: It’s a perfect recipe and playground for the stuff of a well-rendered thriller such as this one, which glides along the slippery slopes of truth and sometimes nasty consequences. It is in that domain that Soderbergh works his magic this time out.