“Psychological thriller” is one of those subgenre labels that often means you’re in for lots of disorienting camera tricks and two hours of histrionics. Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects avoids that trap through the strength and richness of its tortuous story and the captivating subtlety of its filmmaking. But for the first half-hour it is deeply embedded in the broken psyche of Emily (Rooney Mara). The opening pan and zoom from a midday street full of cars and sunlight to the shaded grey wall of Emily’s apartment building starts to build a visual metaphor for the sense of claustrophobia and confinement and impossibility that her depression imparts. When the camera cuts into the apartment itself, to find it tracked with bloody footprints, we don’t yet know what’s happened, but we know the stakes are mortal.
Flash back three months: Emily is preparing to retrieve her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) from prison as his insider trading sentence ends. As she drives up to the prison with his mother, Soderbergh keeps the camera just outside her window, light and shadow whizzing by in reflection over the women’s faces, placing a chilly, foggy distance between Emily and the world. When she’s later placed in the care of Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) following a suicide attempt, she describes her depression as a poisonous fog that rolls into her mind every afternoon, and Soderbergh’s already provided the accompanying image. Dr. Banks prescribes an evolving cocktail of pills, finally hitting upon one called Ablixa that restores Emily’s sex drive and capacity for joy, but also sends her sleepwalking into the bloody tragedy foreshadowed in the movie’s opening shot.
The story then swerves away from Emily’s bleak internal reality and into Dr. Banks’ desperation to figure out just what happened, unraveling his life in the process. The man who was introduced as highly competent and empathetic, calming a hysterical Haitian and explaining the validity of the man’s apparent derangement to the cop who’s ready to cave his head in, is suddenly unkempt and irresponsible and echoing 9/11 truther talking points. But he’s convinced something is not right about Emily’s case, and that Emily’s former therapist Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta Jones) is involved somehow. Soon, we’re out of the “psychological thriller” danger zone, and into the throbbing main vein of a pure thriller.
If this all sounds Hitchcockian, well, congratulations, nerd, it is. The series of bluffs and double-bluffs Dr. Banks explores and the constant threat that he’s wrong and destroying himself to no purpose would be perfectly in place in Vertigo or North By Northwest. The swerve from gorgeous but narrow psychological exploration to throat-clenching crime thriller mirrors Rebecca. Limiting the audience to subjective and static camera perspectives to parcel out information in careful doses and allow for misdirection? Hiya, Rear Window. But while Side Effects is perhaps indebted, it never feels derivative. Soderbergh’s imprint is ever present.
The excellent acting and careful control of color, framing, and music that’s characterized Soderbergh’s whole far-ranging career is on full display here. Mara, Tatum, Law, and Zeta Jones provide uniformly excellent work, though Scott Z. Burns’ script is so taut and perfect that it might have been hard for the ensemble to screw things up. The grays and blues and cool mid-morning light of the movie’s first third give way to clinical yellows and panicked, saturated reds as the story’s focus shifts from Emily to Dr. Banks. As Emily offers a happy recollection in therapy, an unshaded window behind her brightens half the frame and offers an escape from the series of interior, close, claustrophobic shots of her — but as the memory fades and her mood again darkens, the camera slowly pivots around her face, framing out the window and returning her to her dim enclosure. A simmering, jazzy, minor theme helps link and accelerate the various scenes of Dr. Banks’s lonesome investigation, and to contrast the latter two-thirds of the movie with its beginning. The final shot of the film recreates the opening pan and zoom in reverse, with a very different sort of residence serving as reference point. Side Effects makes a fitting hill for Soderbergh’s directing career to die on, and by being so representative of the allure of his best films, it makes the occasion of his retirement exactly as sad as it should be.