The title of Steven Soderbergh's "final" feature film means something very different at the end than it does at the beginning. Side Effects is ostensibly about the devastating unintended consequences of giving a fictional psychotropic drug -- Ablixa -- to a depressed woman.
Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) is the recipient of the prescription, courtesy of Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), beginning the drug regimen after she purposely drives her car full-speed in to the wall of a parking garage. In spite of -- or perhaps because of -- her husband Martin's (Channing Tatum) return from prison after being convicted of insider trading several years earlier, Emily has fallen in to a deep depression. Nevertheless her promise that she's serious about getting better keeps Dr. Banks from committing her and plants her in his office every week instead, where he puts her on a series of medications before landing on Ablixa, one which she claims is effective but also leaves her prone to bouts of sleepwalking.
That apparently harmless side effect turns out to be quite a deadly one when Emily unwittingly stabs her husband to death during one of those bouts.
Soderbergh -- master craftsman that he is -- does an excellent job of making all this seem a little bit off, particularly with the seemingly needless injection of Emily's former psychiatrist, Dr. Victoria Seibert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), in to the plot. Her presence never quite adds up in a film that, at first glance, is about the dangers of powerful drugs that alter one's brain chemistry. That and Tatum's untimely death at the end of the first act make it abundantly clear that, in fact, Side Effects isn't really about psychiatry at all -- at least not the modern practice of it.
Though no one is found criminally responsible for the death of Martin, both Emily and especially Dr. Banks have quite a lot to lose. Emily is packed off to a mental hospital for further examination, while Banks is left ruined professionally, his partners at his practice leaving him out in the cold after the negative attention from the media and state authorities becomes too much.
Banks, like a dog with a bone, can't shake the feeling that he's been hoodwinked by someone in all of this -- after all, he didn't do anything wrong -- and eventually he focuses squarely on the patient who landed him in this mess in the first place.
As Banks methodically untangles the web of intrigue surrounding the entire incident, the viewer is left to ponder the "side effects" of actions more elemental to humanity than the psychobabble someone like Banks might spout -- things like deceit, revenge and entitlement. Unexpectedly, financial fraud, a backdrop to the relationship between Emily and her husband hurtles to the forefront of the film as it nears its conclusion -- money worries motivating all the players involved in this mystery.
By the time it's finally solved, you wind up desperate for a resolution but not relieved in the slightest that it has arrived. Nominally at least, Law is our protagonist, but even he is so self-involved that it's hard to imagine there's a truly happy ending for his character -- there are no triumphs to be had here for anyone. That might sound like a miserable moviegoing experience, but it's not.
Soderbergh weaves a compelling tale about fallen elites. If it's truly his last in Hollywood, then it stands as another painful reminder of just what the film business is going to be missing.