If Steven Soderbergh's troubling new medical thriller, Side Effects (2013), is indeed his final feature film, then he's entering his retirement on an up note. No small feat given how few directors leave their profession with grace and dignity. I mean, just look at Vincente Minnelli's or Billy Wilder's last films if you want a cautionary tale about staying on the stage too long. Side Effects, by contrast, is one of Soderbergh's most assured films.
Note: here there be spoylers.
Emily Taylor is the devoted wife of Martin, a man convicted of insider trading and sent to prison. Emily has soldiered through, but she's suffering the effects of depression. Martin's homecoming is less than happy, because Emily is listless and aphasic. One day, in a fugue, she crashes her car into a wall, apparently as suicide attempt. At the hospital, she meets Dr. Jonathan Banks, a psychiatrist who picks up on the hints that she's suicidal, but lets her return to her life rather than admitting her on the condition that she see him for therapy. She complies. Banks prescribes the usual anti-depressants, but they inhibit Emily's ability to do her job and they make her sick. Banks, meanwhile, becomes a testing physician for a new anti-depressant and after consulting with Emily's old therapist, he puts her on it. One of the side effects of the new drug is sleepwalking, and one night, apparently while she was asleep, she kills her husband. Her legal defense is that she is not guilty by reason of insanity--a defense that works--and while she undergoes evaluation as part of her sentence, Jonathan begins to have doubts about the crime. He begins to obsess over the details, until he convinces himself that something is amiss, something is not what it seems. But is it the drug? Is it his own professional competency? Is it Emily? As his life begins to unravel, he gets closer to the heart of an ugly mystery...
Side Effects is a chilly, clinical movie. My first impulse is to call it a Hitchcockian thriller, but that's not quite right. In its overall design, it seems more like a David Cronenberg film, with its examination of identity as it relates medicine, consciousness and reality filtered through a pharmacological haze. Like most thrillers worth their salt, this is an epistemological examination of what is and isn't real, of who people are and are not. This is not just confined to the central murder mystery. The casual discussions of the effects of various meds between the secondary characters at both Emily's workplace and at the party with Martin's former co-workers paints a portrait of a society at large that is groping for a sense of reality among shifting chemical versions of "truth."
This also feels a bit like a giallo, with its mystery spinning out of a half-seen, half-remember detail, with its obsessed amateur detective whose life is being destroyed by unseen forces. It has the giallo's penchant for style, too. Most of Side Effects's shots are elegantly framed for aesthetics over and above their function as narrative. This is particularly true of the dreamy shots of Rooney Mara's Emily throughout the first half of the movie, but it's also true of the various objects and details the filmmakers choose to emphasize throughout. These fit the world of the giallo perfectly, because they aren't clues in any traditional sense--they don't give the audience any information that lets them decode the mystery as they would in a whodunnit. Instead, they act as markers that lets the filmmakers guide the audience through the exegesis at the end.
The film's last act, it's endgame as it were, involves Jude Law's Banks engaging in a battle of wits with Emily's previous psychiatrist, Victoria, played with a barely concealed rage at the world by Catherine Zeta-Jones (an actress who seems to be transitioning into character parts, probably with some wisdom behind it). The tools both of them use against each other are the powers that our society has bestowed upon the psychiatric profession: personality-disabling drugs, involuntary confinement, electro-convulsive therapy. There's an unspoken, but strongly hinted critique of psychiatry as both a tool of the state and as the tool of unscrupulous predators. This is troubling, and I think it's intentional. There's an unintended subtext in the endgame, too. The key to this film's version of reality is the queerness of two of its characters. The downside of this turn of events, particularly when paired with the film's emphasis on the power of psychiatrists, is that it's suggestive of a universe in which queerness is punishable, where queerness is aberrant and the domain of criminals, where queerness is an affront to the power of white men, both in positions of actual power, like Banks, or as representatives of the capitalist state, like Martin. I can't decide how to view its pair of queer characters, to tell you the truth. I should despise them as murderers, but they're murderers in a particular context. It's a vexing ambiguity.