The great problem with talking about Steven Soderbergh’s latest (and putatively his last) film, SIDE EFFECTS, is that it would be criminal to give away any of the fiendishly clever plot twists involved. This is an elegantly executed sleight-of-hand that hinges on something most people have never thought about: why is it, exactly, that we believe some people and not others? The story revolves around that question, and the more it spins, the more troubling it becomes, and not just because of the classically Hitchcockian device of having an innocent bystander become embroiled in the machinations of sociopaths passing as sane. Every assumption made by reasonable people in the course of a day is challenged, and there is something about Soderbergh’s impersonal style that makes what unfolds all the more horrifying for the complete lack of cinematic empathy involved.
The lurid thriller component of the film, and lurid in the very best sense of that word, plays out against larger themes that brood upon the failings of the criminal justice system, the rapacious nature of Big Pharma, and the worst excesses of media hype. Potent though those are, they pale in comparison to the most unexpected factor, and one upon which the film depends. That would be the evolution from stigma for seeking treatment for mental disorders, to the discussion of medications becoming lingua franca of office mates and partygoers. From the fragile wife (Rooney Mara) of a recently released white-collar criminal (Tatum Channing), to the jittery mate of said wife’s psychiatrist (Jude Law), pills are dispenses and subsequently popped as casually as a breath mint, and for much the same purpose: disguising a problem with a quick fix. Analysis and catharsis that would lead to a non-chemical cure are ancillary as medications are prescribed, and the side effects from nausea to sleepwalking are treated with even more pills.
Counting on medicine being an art, not an exact science, allows the opportunists of the tale to wreak their havoc, as their prey, both selected and accidental, are left bewildered or worse, and with the world at large questioning their sanity when one victim figures out what is really going on and becomes mentally suspect by reasonable people as a result.
The actors are superb, Mara, hollow-eyed and wounded attitude, a perfect picture of tenuous courage quickly falling apart. Channing tender strength and blind loyalty, Law brilliant but naïve, and Catherine Zeta-Jones an ice queen of calm, determined intellect. At least to begin with. Take nothing for granted,, but take note of even the smallest of details with which Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns have gifted us, an absent-minded unraveling of a hospital blanket, the careful way someone looks at a billboard, and, best of all, the sequence in which we first meet Law’s character as he diagnoses a Haitian who has seen his dead father driving a taxi by explaining cultural norms before giving the man a clean bill of mental health.
That nothing is quite what it seems is exquisitely underscored by cinematography that insists on a narrow depth of field. Bits and piece of a room, or a person’s face, drift in and out of sharp focus, the way those clues do, never revealing everything at once, but making a damning collage.
The clinical tone of SIDE EFFECTS is the coldness of a sociopaths heart, and just as chilling. Soderbergh has crafted a nerve-wracking horror story that doesn’t need a supernatural component to chill the viewer to the marrow of his or her bones. Not just because of the split-second timing editing that magnifies the suspense, but also because without the supernatural to blame, there is only human nature twisted and malevolent, and perfectly capable of getting away with murder and worse.