Steven Soderbergh has made something of a habit over the past few years of threatening his departure from the cinematic arena. A fiercely independent filmmaker who has found getting his visions onto the screen more and more difficult, this year he had announced as his retirement from the medium. Prior to the acclaimed Liberace biopic, Behind the Candelabra (2013), was the low-key psychological thriller Side Effects (2013). It may not have threatened box-office records upon initial release but this smart and gripping mystery has more than enough twists and turns to find itself an audience on DVD and Blu-ray.
The opening gambit is an attention-grabbing tracking shot following a trail of blood through a swanky New York apartment. Exactly who has done what in this scenario is deftly delayed as the action flits back to several months earlier and Emily (Rooney Mara) welcoming her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) home after a brief stretch for insider trading. All is clearly not well, however, and soon the clinically depressed Emily is seeing a psychiatrist after a failed suicide attempt. Said shrink, Jonathan (Jude Law), is concerned for her well-being and after consulting with her previous doctor, Victoria (Catherine Zeta-Jones), agrees to prescribe a brand new experimental medication, Ablixa, to help her function normally.
Thus ensue the titular side effects and soon the entire cast of characters has become ensnared in an intricate plot comprising murder, blackmail, and the insidious moral corruption of ‘big pharma’. Soderbergh’s uncanny ability to shift genres rarely results in a misfire but here he’s really in his element weaving together indie sensibilities, believable characters and the murky strands of a fascinating and intricate puzzler. The performances are all good, with Mara carrying off the difficult task of a damaged young woman drifting from numbed depression to drug-addled sedation. However, it’s with Law that the crux of the film really lies, however, and he’s on excellent form as the conflicted Brit trying to stay on the straight and narrow.
If this year really is to be Soderbergh’s bow, then this is a more than notable way to help round things out. Even when its conclusion seems to be revealing itself, exactly how things will pan out is never clear and its wealth of (possibly) duplicitous characters mean that loyalties are always forged on unstable ground. It’s rare for a thriller of this kind to reach a satisfying conclusion, but Side Effects manages it whilst remaining riveting and entertaining in the process.
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