side effects Believed to be the last Steven Soderbergh (Traffic, Ocean’s Eleven, Magic Mike) directed film to have a theatrical release before his now-announced retirement, his compelling new thriller Side Effects features Soderbergh’s recognisably clinical stylistic qualities, with the prolific filmmaker once again teaming up again with writer Scott Z. Burns (Contagion).

Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) has become clinically depressed during the four-year period her husband Martin (Channing Tatum, Magic Mike) has been imprisoned for insider trading. Seeming to struggle with Martin’s attempts to re-assimilate and start up a new business, Emily inexplicably drives her car into a wall in what is believed to be a suicide attempt. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law, Anna Karenina), a psychiatrist and pharmaceutical consultant, is assigned by the state to Emily’s case. His prescribed medication doesn’t work, and during their sessions he begins to realise that Emily is a very troubled young woman.On the advice of Emily’s former psychiatrist, Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta Jones, Chicago), Banks decides to prescribe her an experimental drug, Ablixa. When one of the unexpected side effects results in a violent incident it prompts a thorough investigation into all parties involved.

Side Effects challenges the involvement that pharmaceutical companies, and their professional minions – medical practitioners (GPs, psychiatrists etc.) – have on mental health treatment and the recovery of patients. Endorsing these specific prescriptions they may try and sway their patients to take experimental drugs at reduced costs to aid their research and consultancy.

Banks is publicly blamed for his prescription of Ablixa, who had knowledge that Emily had reacted oddly (but not that it was a documented side effect to the drug) but still didn’t change her prescription. His decision was fueled by Emily’s claims that the drug was uniquely working. We know what happened is not directly his fault, but because he is the trusted expert, he becomes a target for negligence and irresponsibility. Eventually Side Effects becomes an investigative procedural, with Banks beset on clearing his own involvement and finding out the truth behind Emily’s actions.

Banks’ unwavering determination to put his life back together, results in some jaw-dropping discoveries that prove his competency in his field. It is interesting to note that Law actually plays a character in Contagion who manipulates people into choosing one method of treatment (a hoax) for notoriety and material gain. His performance here is committed. He’s an inquisitive man who is a professional first and foremost who has taken on an overload of roles to support his family. There is a lot at stake, and Law is terrific in conveying his growing anxiety.

Channing Tatum again fares well in a small Soderbergh role. He is as nonplussed as one would expect, and though he is trying to recover some business contacts and create a new future for he and his wife, he is patient with her suffering. He knows she has been suffering alone and now needs his help. Rooney Mara is a stunning actress. Some of the looks on her face during this film evoke feelings of despair and concern, and on other occasions even provoke fear. She is unhinged and seemingly unable to control these haunting feelings of hopelessness and melancholy, and later suffers with the confusion surrounding Martin’s death.

All of this is played out to Soderbergh’s recognizable style via the muted colour-palette, over-lighting by design, random shots that are there because they look cool, and that slow circling movement around conversing characters, and his out-of-sync editing choices and Thomas Newman’s suitably moody score.

I love a good twist, and there are a couple of terrific revelations here, but I can’t quite put my finger on why I wasn’t more excited by some of the developments. Thinking back on it, I think they all make sense, but some feel like the result of one particularly underdeveloped character, and lacked the logic and believability of the more effective ones. With some compelling ideas here, this tidy swansong and companion piece to Contagion is more proof that Rooney Mara is a complete natural.

[rating=3] and a half

Andrew Buckle - follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22

Andy Buckle is a passionate Sydney-based film enthusiast and reviewer who has built a respected online voice at his personal blog, The Film Emporium. Andy will contribute reviews, features and be our resident film festival, and awards expert.