'Side Effects' delivers chilling results

Bruce Kirkland, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 3:02 AM ET

For a restless guy who recently claimed he wanted to retire from directing movies, Steven Soderbergh remains both prolific and provocative. It helps that he is a master of many genres, which he demonstrates again in Side Effects.

As written by Scott Z. Burns (Soderbergh's collaborator on The Informant! and Contagion), Side Effects is a stunner for its effortless blend of two genres that seldom work so well together: the Hitchcockian murder mystery and the serious social drama.

Meanwhile, the film is populated with excellent actors doing great work: Jude Law, Rooney Mara, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Vinessa Shaw, Polly Draper and even Channing Tatum, Soderbergh's sorcerer's apprentice.

Side Effects begins with a murder scene explored with surgical precision. Soderbergh shows us only random clues as to the perpetrator, victim and circumstances. Because it looks so exquisite -- an art installation splashed with blood -- the scene is not lurid, despite the probable violence. Soderbergh is engaging our intellect, not our viscera. Flash back several months and the story starts over, eventually taking us up to the bloody tragedy -- and beyond. The plot boasts shock-and-awe surprises.

The core protagonists are an ambitious but overworked psychiatrist (Law), his depressed patient (Mara), her white-collar criminal husband (Tatum) and the influential psychiatrist (Zeta-Jones) who treated Mara's character in Connecticut before her husband first went to prison. In New York, Mara turns to Law for counselling after Tatum is released.

The story turns on how Law treats his new patient, specifically with a cutting-edge anti-depressant that may have disturbing side effects. Who is responsible when a depressed patient on potent drugs commits a violent crime? Whose lives will be ruined in the scandal?

As a murder mystery, Side Effects is bold and innovative -- just as Hitchcock's Spellbound was in 1945 while exploring the mind of an amnesia victim who is a suspect in a murder case. Hitchcock played psychiatry as a science and not as a joke in his movie, rare in Hollywood for that era.

Soderbergh takes that notion much further, turning most of Side Effects into a contemporary examination of the world of American psychiatry and the drugs that doctors prescribe. It is a big business that, as competition spins out of control and corruption and greed distort the science, inevitably screws with the brains of some patients. Side Effects is a cautionary tale as well as a mystery.

On the dramatic level, Law is exceptional because he allows his character to teeter on the edge of his own abyss. Is he a hero or a victimizer? Should we sympathize or criticize? As for the wretched creature at the heart of the story, Mara conjures a complex portrait of a young woman caught between desire and decadence, between hope and helplessness.

Zeta-Jones offers one of her most contained and compelling performances while Tatum does what is needed. Key support players include Shaw as Law's wife and Draper as Mara's boss.

Soderbergh is the real star, however. His smooth, controlled precision on Side Effects is an art form. The style here is so different from what he did on Magic Mike, Haywire or Contagion, all of which are different from one another, too. For our pleasure and purpose, the master of many genres needs to keep directing.

 


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