Review: ‘Side Effects’ gives Rooney Mara a killer role in a sly Soderbergh thriller

If this is how Steven Soderbergh decides to go out, let it be known he was playing games right up till the bitter end.

One of the interesting things about Soderbergh’s career has been how low key the marketing on many of his films has been.  Considering how prominent he’s  been in the Hollywood landscape since “sex, lies and videotapes” first vaunted him to fame, Soderbergh’s films often feel like stealth events when they arrive in theaters.  Considering this is the last theatrical release he’s supposedly ever directing, “Side Effects” arrives in theaters with surprisingly little fanfare, and when I walked into the theater, I hadn’t seen anything.  Not a photo.  Not a trailer.

I’ve said before that there are two different versions of a film.  There’s the version that is seen by the audience that has seen the trailers and the clips and the commercials, who walks in with a certain degree of the movie spoiled because that’s how we sell movies these days.  They’re the ones who walked into “Terminator 2” knowing full well that Arnold was not only back, but that he was the good guy this time.  They’re the ones who sit through movies that have twist endings waiting for the twist ending.  Even if they don’t know what it is, they know it’s coming.  Then there’s the version of the film that someone sees nine years later when they’re at home one day and they see that the next thing on cable is called “Side Effects,” and they’ve never heard of it, but they see that it’s a Soderbergh film with Rooney Mara and Channing Tatum in it, and they decide to watch it, and whatever the narrative does, it hits them cold and the script works the way it’s supposed to work in a vacuum.  If you see “Terminator 2” and you somehow haven’t been spoiled at all, the first time Arnold appears, it looks like he’s the bad guy again.  There’s no indication that he’s anything but The Terminator until he fires past John Connor and hits Robert Patrick.  That’s the beat where suddenly the first film implodes and we realize something else is going on this time.  If it can work on you in that perfect vacuum, without being ruined at all, it’s a very special narrative experience, and I value them when they occur.

To that end, let me just say that I liked “Side Effects” more than I expected to, and I would tell you to go see it if you’re in the mood for a fun director’s flick, a film where you can feel the director playing a game the entire time, having fun, enjoying the craft and enjoying the image of what the audience is going to do when they lay eyes on the movie.  Read nothing else.  Watch nothing else.  Just go and enjoy.

If you choose to read beyond that, then I assume you want to have the larger conversation about what it is that Soderbergh’s done here and why it works.  You want to have a discussion about how the ongoing collaboration between Scott Z. Burns and Soderbergh has turned out to be one of the richest of the director’s career.  And why wouldn’t you?  This is a movie that totally sneaks up on you, narratively.  The film is deceptively structured, and I feel for it hook, line and sinker.  The film starts off telling the story of a young couple trying to adjust when Martin (Channing Tatum) is released from prison.  He was there for insider trading, and the entire time he was in, Emily (Rooney Mara) has been waiting for him, ready to pick up where they left off.  Martin is determined to make things right for his wife, and Emily wants to support him.  She’s been depressed while he was gone, though, and even though she’s excited for him to be home, her depression starts to get worse.  She has social anxiety, and she finds she just can’t connect with Martin.

It’s not until she starts to get treated by Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) that she begins to hope that she might be able to make things work.  He tries her on a few different SSRI prescriptions before putting her on a fairly new drug.  She immediately sees improvements.  She finds her sexual urge returning, she’s able to laugh and relax, and she believes she’s found the solution.  Unfortunately, she also sleepwalks when she takes it, and as Banks tries to adjust her prescription, she starts to worry again.

When something truly terrible happens, Emily finds herself at the center of a criminal investigation, and Dr. Banks finds himself having to defend his own behavior.  Did the chemical cocktail he created break some part of Emily’s impulse control center?  Is he responsible for what happened?  Is she?

The film is not an issue-related movie, but it’s easy to get fooled into thinking it’s one during the first half.  For a short stretch, I thought maybe it was covering some of the same territory as the Todd Haynes film “Safe,” a sort of cautionary tale about the toxic world we accept as normal.  But as the film gradually reveals its true intent, it turns out to be a nasty character-driven thriller about the lengths some people will go to punish someone for disappointing them.  It reminds me in some ways of “Primal Fear,” a thriller where the mystery was less fun than the central performance driving that mystery.  The same is true here, and Soderbergh continues a long history of getting some of the most interesting work of an actor’s career because of the way he casts his movies.  Rooney Mara has had her fair share of praise heaped on her over the years, but I think this might be the first time I’m really dazzled by her.  She has to nail every beat of the role that Burns has written for her or the film collapses, and I think from the first scene to the last, she absolutely nails it.  Tatum continues his string of loose and relaxed recent performances, and he makes a strong impression in a relatively short amount of the overall running time.

Between “Side Effects” and “Contagion,” I am fascinated by the way Soderbergh has used Jude Law, and I get the feeling Law is happier here than he is in the vast majority of the Hollywood films he’s done.  Law strikes me as a stealth freak, a far weirder guy than he appears to be on the surface.  He looks like an Old Hollywood movie star, but he’s got the dark twisted heart of a ’70s rebel.  In “Contagion,” he is the rotten-toothed voice of the fringe, the paranoid lunatic who happens to be right for once, and in this film, he’s a guy who takes full advantage of the system to squeeze every penny out of it that he can, a guy who is happy to let Big Pharma pad his billfold.  When he finds himself on the hook for a tragedy, he can’t just let himself be wrong.  He has to prove that it wasn’t his mistake that created the situation, and he emerges as the lead in the film’s second half.

As always, the craft on display here is effortless and impressive.  Soderbergh’s work as cinematographer Peter Andrews is smart, austere and intelligent, and there is a nearly-invisible wit to the choices made in the edit.  There’s not a wasted bit of film here, not a single thrown-away image.  The more attention you pay to the small details, the more impressive an accomplishment it is.  What I like about the work Soderbergh’s been doing with Scott Burns is the feeling that Burns writes these scripts like dares, each of them loaded with potential problems, and Soderbergh’s glee in solving those problems or nailing down a particularly tricky tone is a chance to establish just how much control he exhibits as an artist at this point.  Thomas Newman’s score is subtle but strong, never telegraphing what’s going on, but tying things together in some very clear ways as the film unfolds.

Ultimately, I don’t think “Side Effects” has much on its mind aside from being a smartly-built exercise in genre, and it works as an exercise, as a good example of what Soderbergh is capable of, a chance for Burns to write a very specific voice.  If this is truly the last film Soderbergh makes, it is not an important last film except in as much as it represents an example of a real artist pulling off exactly what he sets out to do.  It is important because it is Soderbergh, and because it is Soderbergh, it is stripped down and does its best to avoid artifice.  I’m sure I’ll see better films than “Side Effects” this year, but I’m not sure I’ll see many that are better-made.

“Side Effects” opens in limited release today.