All the talk is of the end of Steven Soderbergh, but Side Effects is also the start of something; the arrival – proper – of Rooney Mara.
Mara – a bit part in The Social Network, and in the shadow of Noomi Rapace for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo – is allowed to shine in Soderbergh’s final film before retirement; and her star is blindingly bright. She plays Emily Taylor, a young New Yorker waiting for the release of her husband Martin (Channing Tatum), an investment banker jailed for insider trading and whom must now make his way in the world again. But his arrival home is not a happy one; Emily – a long-time sufferer of depression – descends again into a “poisonous fog” of hopelessness, finding herself suddenly incapable of imaging a future.
A half-hearted attempt at suicide brings her to the attention of Jude Law’s seemingly caring and dedicated psychiatrist Jonathan Banks, an elegant, prideful Englishman caught up in big pharma’s endless seduction of respected doctors. Seeking advice from Emily’s former shrink (Catherine Zeta-Jones), the good doctor prescribes Emily with Ablixa, a new antidepressant pill freshly released onto the market.
Mara’s portrayal of a fragile girl fresh on meds and battling with a lust for self-harm is mesmerizing. Unsure, it seems, of what she might be capable of, Emily suddenly finds herself teetering on the edge of train stations, peering at the fall from her apartment window, suddenly lurching from anxiety attacks to an aggressive yearning for sex. She begins sleep-walking in the most strangely lucid way, both haunted and haunting.
Soderbergh’s direction is thrillingly manipulative in these early scenes; suddenly a warped reflection in a window, the gust of an encroaching train, the brief touch of two hands in the lobby of a hotel can contain a terrifying, almost sensual intensity. Violence, we sense, is inevitable, but what kind? The film becomes pregnant with that question, throbbing with a high-tremor of disquiet.
There comes a point in Side Effects where one can see, branching out, the many different avenues this story could take, each as compelling as the other. Soderbergh, audacious to the end, seems to have decided to try all of them. The film begins to morph – like a chameleon – into a high-camp satire, a downbeat noir, a realist drama, a heady Hitchcockian thriller, but returning again and again to the increasingly fraught, increasingly tragic relationship-game between doctor and patient. Jude Law excels as the psychiatrist turned embattled detective, trapped in a knot of suspicion and overly intimate concern, fueled by lust, envy and greed for Emily, but kept just in check by his own standards of care. Emily, in turn, descends only deeper, allowing to the world a persona of herself, her intentions and motives obscured with each passing minute.
The film, of course, begins to stretch at the sinews of reason, but did Hitchcock, Sirk or Welles prize the sober over the frivolous? Soderbergh – the director of 26 films and 24 years – has reached a stage where technique has been superseded by performance. Side Effects has an agile, spontaneous and insouciant brilliance, the mark of a master craftsman enjoying himself one last time. If this really is a farewell, then we should treat it as such, and bear witness.
Side Effects is out in cinemas today…
Text: Tom Seymour