If 2013 really is the year Steven Soderbergh says sayonara to cinema, then this paranoid, queasy psychodrama encapsulates exactly why we’re going to miss him.
From the opening shot of Side Effects – a Hitchcockian homage that appears to be showing usthe story’s tragic endpoint – he has his audience exactly where he wants them, eating trustingly from a hand that’s about to pull the rug out from under them.
For its first hour, this is one kind of film – a disturbing indictment of the pharmaceutical industry’s stronghold over mental healthcare in the US.
Rooney Mara’s depressive Emily exists in a Prozac nation of casual pill-poppers – concerned colleagues recommend medications that worked well for them, while her shady therapist Dr Banks (Jude Law) is eager to prescribe her an experimental treatment and pocket the profits. When the side effects turn tragic, who’s really to blame?
But as it turns out, screenwriter Scott Z. Burns isn’t interested in exposing the failings of psychiatry.
The tonal 180 he and Soderbergh make, once a desperate Banks starts digging for dirt on Emily and her former shrink (Catherine Zeta-Jones), is masterfully unsettling, with Law giving his most complex performance in years and Mara’s impassive doll-like features used to disquieting effect.
The shift from pensive mood piece into B-movie psychological warfare isn’t seamless; not all of the revelations feel motivated, and Soderbergh lets plot drive character to an extent that some will find alienating.
But as a taut and compellingly amoral thriller, Side Effects is unlikely to be matched this year.