Warning: Steven Soderbergh's new film may cause anxiety, frustration, terror, temporary memory loss, episodes of euphoria, Hitchcockian feelings of nostalgia, numbing, exhilaration, dread and apathy. Side effects of Side Effects may also include jaw clenching and eye rolling. Consumption of Side Effects is recommended with a grain of salt.
Soderbergh is a master of genre jumping, as apt at tackling sprawling legal dramas as popcorn flicks. With Side Effects, he combines the medical horrors of 2011's middling Contagion with a noir-style narrative about a young woman (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo's Rooney Mara) who commits a horrendous crime while under the influence of a radical new antidepressant. What emerges is a nail biter that eventually sacrifices a gorgeous concept for standard mystery beats.
But the setup, a story about the casualties of mental-health treatment, is damn jarring. Mara puts in a performance that's completely counter to the feel-good depression of Silver Linings Playbook, painting a portrait of mental illness and paranoia that lodges directly under the skin. Suicidal and prone to sleepwalking, she reaches out to an overworked psychiatrist (Jude Law), who puts her on the experimental antidepressant. It doesn't go so well.
As with any mystery, the less you know going into Side Effects the better, but let it suffice to say this is perhaps the least Soderberghian of the director's films. Gone are his signature humor and off-color lens filters, which are ditched for a smooth digital palette. What is ever present, though, is his ability to unnerve, and the first hour plays like a nightmare in which you occupy the head of a severely disturbed mental patient, an effect augmented by jittery sound design that gives the illusion of constant whispers following Mara. Meanwhile, Channing Tatum continues his evolution into a solid actor with a turn as a loving husband whose concerns add gravity.
Alas, just as the film ratchets up the jitters and paranoia, it takes a turn for the conventional in the second half, which focuses on Law doing an awful lot of Googling and stoic staring before the film hits the safety net of ho-hum conspiracy theory and conventional thriller tropes. For all its emotional buildup and unease, Side Effects eventually suffers from multiple personalities.
Critic's Grade: B-
SEE IT: Side Effects is rated R. It opens Friday at Eastport, Clackamas, Fox Tower, Cedar Hills, Lloyd Center, Bridgeport.