Film review: Soderbergh bows out on a high with Side Effects

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If this is, as promised, Steven Soderbergh's final movie, he's signed off on a crafty, bamboozling high with Side Effects. Perhaps we should pause to salute a film-maker who has managed to be prolific without abusing quality control, or not much. True, I cordially despise the whimsical fodder of Ocean's 11/12/13, his daft satire The Informant! and those nutty experimental efforts (Schizopolis) he allowed himself now and then. Consistency hasn't been his strong suit, but then it wasn't Robert Altman's either.

Soderbergh has made more good than bad, and even when not at his best his films have been founded on intelligence, craftsmanship, a willingness to take risks and a determination to keep entertaining. If he hasn't made anything quite as funny and inspired as his 1989 debut, sex, lies and videotape, then let's admit it was a hard act to follow.

What's interesting about Side Effects is that it starts out as one sort of film and ends as quite another. After 20 minutes or so you may have placed it as a medico-moral drama in the style of his earlier Erin Brockovich, with a pinch of his disaster flick Contagion thrown in. From the story of one woman's mental illness questions of guilt and retribution ripple outwards. That woman would be Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara), a young Manhattan professional who has been waiting for her husband (Channing Tatum) to be released from prison; he was convicted for insider trading four years previously.

Once reunited, they have a hard time picking up the pieces. Evidently fragile, and perhaps severely depressed, Emily raises a cry for help when she drives her car at speed into a wall. Recovering in hospital, she is attended by Dr Banks (Jude Law), a psychiatrist with a decent bedside manner and a private agenda: prescribing a new antidepressant, Ablixa, he hopes to benefit from enrolling Emily in a drug trial that will earn him $50,000 on the side.

We know from the start that this will not go well. The opening scene noses through a city apartment whose floor is slick with blood, lots of it. Someone has been murdered, but who? This is left poised as the narrative tracks back three months earlier to Emily's mental travails.

What sets up the movie so artfully is the casting of Rooney Mara. Cleaned of the goth warpaint that made it a mask in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Mara's face is subtly difficult to read, even when not hidden by a curtain of light-brown hair. Her wide grey eyes are possibly innocent, possibly calculating. Her voice is a puzzler, too, attractively husky at one moment, then adenoidal at another, like she's got a bad cold. The evidence indicates that this woman needs careful handling, and when things turn from fretful to fateful the issue of responsibility suddenly becomes critical. Was Dr Banks' original diagnosis of her condition faulty? Was he too much influenced by Big Pharma when he prescribed the new wonder drug?

Written by Scott Z Burns (Contagion), the script finds a good, tense rhythm in its personal and professional confrontations. It furnishes just enough medical science for us to feel flattered, and enough uncertainty in the crosscurrent of motives to keep us guessing. Here, too, Soderbergh's casting pays off two (arguably huge) risks. If you'd told me Jude Law was about to give his best performance in years I would have shrugged and said wake me up when it's over... But relieved of having to play the heart-throb, Law really is convincing as the shrink who has got himself in a panic, not merely accused of medical malpractice but suspected by his wife (Vinessa Shaw) of extramarital diddling: the look she gives Emily when the latter throws herself on her husband's mercy is a great "women beware women" moment. Soderbergh has spotted Law's capacity for playing the weakling, and turned it to advantage: you're right there with him as he sweats under the cosh.

The other surprise is Catherine Zeta-Jones as a therapist who treated Emily in the past. Zeta-Jones's mid-Atlantic accent has always sounded to me an avatar of phoniness, and her acting has tended to follow suit. Here she projects a porcelain confidence that's showing the tiniest crackle in the glaze; like Law, she has settled into a mature phase, no longer dependent on vamping for her effect. It's also her chance quotation of a line from William Styron's memoir of depression – he describes it as a "poisonous fog" rolling over the victim – which marks the film's significant change of tone.

From its title alone one might assume that Side Effects is partially an indictment of the pharmaceutical industry, of the liberal traffic in prescription drugs and the questionable motivation of psychiatrists in handing them out – like a medical-ethics version of Soderbergh's Oscar-winning Traffic. Well, so much for assumptions. That might have been an interesting movie, but it's not the one he's concocted here, which is a suspense thriller, spiked with a touch of noir.

To reveal any more would be to spoil the fun. Let's just say it's pleasingly unpredictable. Soderbergh has slipped us a Mickey Finn and worked up an atmosphere of deception that's very persuasive. His clever camera movements (he's also the cinematographer, pseudonymously credited as "Peter Andrews") and shrewd edits betoken a director right on top of his game. The insinuating score by Thomas Newman links together the sidelong character study of the early stages and the switchback of the latter. With a second viewing, it may look even more accomplished. And so he bows out. Forever? We must hope not, otherwise this will be the maddening reminder of a career prematurely snuffed.

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