Side Effects: One Pill Makes You Murder

Steven Soderbergh's "last" movie (until the next one) twists an anti-Pharma diatribe into a top-grade thriller

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Open Road Films

TV commercials for virility or antidepressant medications often devote most of their two-minute spiels to describing the awful incidental maladies that may befall the pill-taker. By the end of the Doomsday small print, you’re likely to think: That which makes me stronger may also kill me. A similar warning should attend any review of Side Effects. Revealing the usual amount of plot would be unfair to viewers with a right to be as surprised as most critics have been. Directed by Steven Soderbergh and written by Scott Z. Burns, who previously collaborated on the twisty thrillers Contagion and The Informant!, the new movie is like a secret too cool to keep but too treacherous to share. Side Effects virtually demands a three-word review: Just see it.

Soderbergh has said that this is the last movie he will direct for a while. (He’s got a TV film, the Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra, set for airing on HBO later this year.) The industry’s most prodigious auteur may be entitled to a rest. Now in his 25th year since his 1989 debut with sex, lies and videotape, Soderbergh has directed 25 features, including eight in the last five years. He’s also an active producer, shepherding such films as PleasantvilleFar from Heaven and his former business partner George Clooney‘s Michael Clayton and Good Night, and Good Luck. On his own films he’s a one-man crew, serving as both cinematographer (under his father’s Christian names Peter Andrews) and editor (under his mother’s maiden name, Mary Ann Bernard). More efficient than inspired, Soderbergh rarely succeeds on style alone, but when giving a sharp script, like the one for Side Effects, he can make an excellent film. If this is his swan song, it’s got a haunting melody.

(SEE: the Side Effects trailer)

The first half-hour lulls audiences into settling in for a screed against Big Pharma, unscrupulous doctors, and the American belief in better living, right now and forever, through chemistry. Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara), a young Manhattanite with a sensitive, fragile demeanor, swaps pill lore with her boss (Polly Draper), who says, “I had better luck with Celexa” — as if feel-good medications were an online dating service for incurable optimists. Keep shopping around and hope for the best.

(READ: Corliss on the Soderbergh-Burns medical thriller Contagion)

Emily’s psychiatrist, Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), has prescribed Zoloft and then a number of drugs that regulate serotonin, because “it just stops the brain from telling you to feel sad.” But these drugs can’t calm the roiling urges inside Emily, whose Wall Street husband Martin (Channing Tatum) has just been released from prison after a four-year stretch for insider trading. She looked forward to seeing the man she loved, yet is unresponsive in bed. At a party at which Martin is uncomfortably welcomed back by his old colleagues, she glances at a mirror and see her own cracked visage. In the parking garage of their highrise, she revs up her car and drives it into a wall.

(SEE: Wook Kim’s choice of Top 10 Movie Shrinks)

When Emily lived with Martin in posh Greenwich, Conn., before his fall, she consulted another shrink, Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), To Banks, the imperious Dr. Siebert recommends a new antidepressant called Ablixa, even as the company’s salesmen offer Banks a $50,000 honorarium for testing the drug and prescribing it to his patients. “Take Ablixa today,” the ads read, “and take back tomorrow.” Emily doesn’t have to wait that long for Ablixa to kick in: her sex with Martin is instantly zesty. “Whoever makes this drug,” he exclaims in postcoital rapture, “is going to be f—in’ rich.” But there are side effects, says the movie, whose own ad copy reads, “In some cases, death may occur.”

(READ: Corliss on the Soderbergh-Burns industrial-corruption thriller The Informant!)

So Side Effects is a murder mystery. No spoiler alert needed here. The film’s first shot, tracking through the Manhattan sky toward the Taylor residence, may remind you of the opening of Psycho: a slow advance toward furtive sex and eventual death. The second shot, inside their apartment, follows a trail of blood, as if a body had been dragged across the floor; and we are in the urban equivalent of a Bates Motel room. Later on, around the 45-minute mark, a major character will get diced and spliced by a kitchen knife, as Janet Leigh was in Psycho. To cement the kinship between the two films, the Side Effects publicists mimicked Alfred Hitchcock’s master stroke of promotion: critics would not be admitted to early screenings after the film began.

(SEE: Wook Kim’s Top 10 Movie Bath/Shower Scenes

Sworn to the reviewer’s oath of not revealing too much about a mystery film, yet wanting to drop a few hints to the kinoscenti, I’ll just add that Side Effects summons references to other Hitchcocks — Spellbound, The Wrong Man, Vertigo, Marnie — and such Hitchcock-tribute films as ObsessionDressed to KillRaising Cain and Passion made by the director’s No. 1 fan, Brian De Palma. But whereas De Palma’s camera swoops and swoons, as if intoxicated by the perfume of criminal lust, Soderbergh’s prowls with brisk efficiency, like an expert homicide detective in a hurry.

(FIND a Hitchcock film and a De Palma on TIME’s list of the Top 25 all-TIME horror movies)

You’ll also detect echoes of Rosemary’s Baby (questionable psychiatrists involved in Manhattan highrise hijinks) and the 1981 Body Heat (an attractive couple whose passion turns toxic). This list could go on forever, since every movie is in some way like every other. But Side Effects is certainly like earlier Soderbergh movies, in that, however fancy its plot footwork, it probes contemporary anxieties, whether in the recent flurry of murders and suicides in New York City subway stations or in the power of the psychiatric establishment (soon they could put you on a list that would forbid you from buying a firearm). All the drugs mentioned are real except for Ablixa — which has its own fake website, in case the machinations here make you so apprehensive that you want to try it.

(READ: Corliss’s review of Body Heat by subscribing to TIME)

Side Effects also focuses on a problem that afflicts few people in movies but is ever on the minds of the people watching them: financial pressures. In Soderbergh’s Erin Brockovich, Bubble, The Girlfriend Experience, The Informant! and Magic Mike, the core concern is what a person will do for money — not as a jolly heist, as in the Ocean’s capers, but to maintain or raise the character’s standard of living. Emily and Martin lost his great job, their Greenwich mansion and their beloved sailboat. Banks, in addition to his full patient load, does a hospital shift to keep his sleek wife (Vinessa Shaw) in a swank SoHo loft and their son in a private school. Losing those lovely perks could force people into the most desperate or diabolical measures.

(READ: Steven James Snyder on Channing Tatum in Soderbergh’s Magic Mike)

The movie holds all kinds of feints and decoys, but its biggest surprise is Mara. After her mannered, vacant performance in the American version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, people like me wondered: Why is she in movies? The answer: To make this one. Caressed by golden hues in the sunny flashbacks, appearing wan and frail in some of Emily’s darker moments, Mara proves worthy of Soderbergh’s closeup attention. Emily may not always be reliable; her descriptions of her symptoms — “Every afternoon at three, there’s this poisonous fog bank, rolling in on my mind” — have the whiff of a borrowed epigram (William Styron’s, from Darkness Visible). But, surrounded by some of Soderbergh’s favorite actors, Mara makes her peculiarly watchable; viewers scan her face for clues to a woman as elusive as she is smart.

(READ: Corliss on Rooney Mara in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo)

In Body Heat, Kathleen Turner sizes up William Hurt, smiles and says, “You’re not too smart. I like that in a man.” Virtually all the main characters in Side Effects are smarter and more devious than the average moviegoer. Certainly Burns and Soderbergh are. The plot’s double backflips and triple lutzes come so fast that, at the end, I wasn’t quite sure who had just screwed whom. I guess I could be a patient experiencing an altered state from the movie’s medication. But for now I’ll play critic-doctor with this prescription: Take two viewings and call me in the morning.