Steven Soderbergh’s latest effort Side Effects begins in media res, with a deeply enigmatic opening shot: a pool of blood is shown, before the camera tracks up the hallway of an apartment, displaying bloody footprints leading to a still-wrapped gift.
Intrigue successfully set up, Soderbergh’s film begins to show events three months prior to the opening incident; Emily Taylor (a luminous Rooney Mara) is eagerly awaiting the release of her husband (Channing Tatum) from prison after serving a four-year sentence for insider trading. Shortly after his release, Emily drives her car into a wall. Awaiting consultation in hospital, Emily is visited by psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Banks (an excellent Jude Law). Discovering a history of depression, Banks listens to Emily’s assurances that she is not a danger to herself, but insists that she visits him weekly to ensure her mental wellbeing.
Emily’s condition rapidly worsens and her feelings of hopelessness become more frequent; Banks thus deems it appropriate to start Emily on various medications, before settling on a newly released drug (a drug that Emily herself expresses a desire to try). The new drug, whilst aiding her mood, leaves her frequently sleepwalking, performing various tasks (laying the table, cooking) whilst not conscious. It is this frequent sleepwalking that leads to the bloodied scene at the film’s commencement: what follows is a high-concept thriller, which in its better moments is highly in debt to Hitchcock, and in its less-inspired moments, errs towards a sometimes trashy sheen.
Rooney Mara, so impressive in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, once again demonstrates her ability to play truly complex characters; her Emily remains simultaneously vulnerable yet powerful at all times and ever utterly engaging. Jude Law is on fine form too: his increasing obsession and bewilderment with the circumstances surrounding Emily drive the narrative forward, taking the viewer along with him. Without our investment in Banks’ determination to uncover the increasingly convoluted circumstances surrounding Emily and her illness, the film would immediately falter (and falter it does eventually, crumbling under its increasingly ludicrous high-concept); but with Law and Mara’s considerable talents the film remains a well-paced intriguing thriller beautifully shot.
Ultimately Soderbergh has made a film that, whilst overall remains a success, rapidly loses both sense and steam in the final ten minutes; yet its wavering final act does not dispel the success of what has preceded.