Steven Soderbergh reunites with Channing Tatum for a more serious film than Magic Mike, as Rooney Mara takes an experimental drug for depression and unravels…
Emily (Mara) is depressed. Her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) is coming to the end of his 5 year sentence for insider trading, and she’s very nervous about him coming home to a small apartment in Manhattan that is a substantial step down in the world from the privileged Connecticut life they once led. After she deliberately drives her car into a wall Martin insists that she seek therapy from English psychiatrist Dr Banks (Jude Law). But little seems to help until an office co-worker suggests she take a new experimental drug. Banks reluctantly prescribes it but soon Emily’s behaviour becomes wildly erratic, leading to a tragic accident. As her previous psychiatrist Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones) shifts all blame for Emily’s actions onto Banks, he finds himself trapped in a Kafkaesuqe legal nightmare alongside Emily as the justice system looks for scapegoats.
Soderbergh’s regular screenwriter Scott Z Burns (Contagion, The Informant!) grounds this nightmarish drama in well researched reality. Some of the most chilling scenes involve not Emily’s hallucinations but the insidious cosy relationship between doctors and Big Pharma, and the subsequent shafting of Banks by all his colleagues once Emily’s case makes the tabloids lest it endanger their own lucrative practices. The obvious comparison for a story like this you’d think is Douglas Sirk’s Bigger than Life but in fact it’s impossible to guess where Burns’ script will go next, one moment it feels like The Crucible as the legal net catches the blameless Dr Banks, and the next it feels closer to a Henri Georges Clouzot suspense thriller. If you’re not conscious then you can’t have intent – but can you be programmed by others? This question makes Banks increasingly paranoid.
Law, following an unexpectedly revelatory turn in Anna Karenina, is very sympathetic as the good man caught inside an inexorably tightening legal vice and being abandoned by his friends and his shrill wife (Vinessa Shaw) as he tries to prove his innocence. Tatum oddly seems to be wearing Magic Mike outfits at times, and is involved in dodgy deals in the South again, but he makes Martin a very caring white-collar criminal. Zeta-Jones fares less well, looking positively sepulchral in a cold role, while Thomas Newman, composing well outside his comfort zone, is equally unimpressive. But this film belongs to the sensational Rooney Mara. She is utterly compelling thru all plot twists and medicated character changes, and remains an utter chameleon: she can resemble physically and persona-wise Tom Hiddleston or Sam Rockwell depending on what the scene needs from her.
Side Effects tackles serious matters of depression, medication culture, and legal chicanery, and does so with compelling tension; yes, there are quibbles, but this is Soderbergh near his best.