Roger Ebert once wrote that, “Movies are hardly ever about what they seem to be about,” and Steven Soderbergh’s latest film is certainly no exception to this rule. On the surface, Side Effects is a deeply satisfying psychological thriller with all the requisite earmarks of a classic. And yet, at its core, Soderbergh’s film feels more like some deep meditation on the human stain of mental illness, the compound risk of medication, and the innate greed that leads people to exploit either one.
Side Effects is master manipulation at its finest – a shape-shifting house of mirrors steeped in the grand filmmaking tradition of Hitchcock and Kubrick (perhaps even Polanski). Soderbergh doles out crucial details in highly disciplined drips and drabs here, goading the audience straight into a labyrinth that’s slowly zigzagging its way back to center. The writing is brilliant, the cinematography is bleak, and the motherfucking game is oh-so definitely afoot.
All of which brings us to the acting. And the acting in this film is absolutely superb. Channing Tatum fits the bill as an ex-con financier. Jude Law is cracking good as the mid-life academic, and Catherine Zeta-Jones will make you yearn for the days when she might’ve taken on a role like this for little more than sport.
But the real story here – the story that serves to keep the whole enchilada in one piece – is Rooney Goddamn Mara. Rooney Mara. Rooney Mara. Rooney Goddamn Fucking Mara. Y’know, there have been moments throughout these past 2-3 years – several of them, in fact – when it seems like Rooney Mara might actually be railing against the milk-white suburbanite co-ed she played in David Fincher’s Social Network. That young co-ed’s all but dead now, replaced by an ultra-powerful femme fatale who initially rose to prominence via Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, before barreling straight-on through with an Oscar-caliber turn in both this film and the next.
What it all boils down to is the fact that Side Effects is quite possibly the best thing Steven Soderbergh has ever laid hands on. And it’s proof positive that the long and frigid cinematic clime of early January has now officially run its course.
(Side Effects opens in theaters nationwide today.)