'Side Effects': The bad, bad side of feel-good drugs

Emily Taylor is depressed. "It's like this poisonous fog bank rolling in on my mind," she tells her psychiatrist. In Side Effects, Steven Soderbergh's artfully cool, aptly clinical thriller, it's a line that will come back to haunt her.

Rooney Mara - the girl from The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, minus the piercings, cyber-craft, and attitude - is Emily, in her late 20s, living and working in New York. Her husband, Martin (an unshowy Channing Tatum), has just been released from prison, where he has been serving time on an insider-trading conviction. And Jude Law, making the rounds of a hospital psychiatric ward, is the shrink, Jonathan Banks.

One evening, just days after Martin's release, Emily climbs into her car and guns it, foot down on the accelerator, straight into a wall. At the hospital, Banks examines the bruised and battered Emily, takes her on as a patient, and, well, the rest is tricky - a tightly coiled psychological thriller that would make James M. Cain proud.

Side Effects, as its title suggests, is on one level a movie about the culture of pharmaceutical cure-alls - mood elevators, antidepressants, SSRIs, SNRIs, Bupropion, Trazodone, Mirtazapine - drugs, that as Banks explains, "help stop the brain from telling you you're sad."

But what else are those drugs doing? Do they have other, less propitious consequences? Suicidal ideation? Parasomnia, sleep disorders?

Can they make somebody kill?

Side Effects, chilly and noirish, and boasting a wily performance from Catherine Zeta-Jones as a therapist who worked with Emily earlier in her adulthood, is, Soderbergh says, his swan song. The prolific filmmaker (26 films since his 1996 debut, sex, lies, and videotape) has announced that at 50, he is retiring. He'll paint. Perhaps he'll do TV. And maybe, one day, he'll be back. (He does have an HBO film, Behind the Candelabra, with Michael Douglas as Liberace, still coming.)

But Side Effects is not a bad way to bow out. Mara, petite and skittish, has a look in her eyes that's hard to read - which is, of course, exactly right for a woman who appears to be moving with a cloud of hopelessness and gloom over her head.

Law's Jonathan Banks, a doctor with a good bedside manner, has his own woes - a wife without a job, a young son, a mortgage. When he is asked to consult on a program to test a new drug, an antidepressant, he goes for the money. The professional compromises don't stop there.

Soderbergh, who has always shot his own films - using the nom de cinematographer Peter Andrews - imbues Side Effects with a crisp look, the scenes neatly framed, the architecture and urban grids boxing its characters in. But though the surfaces are clean and bright (clean except for that trail of blood along an apartment floor), there is plenty of dark, murky business going on underneath.

Sex, lies, and violence.

Contact Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at www.philly.com/onmovies.

Side Effects

Directed by Steven Soderbergh. With Kenneth Simmons, Jude Law, David Costabile, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Anthony J. Ribustello, Sheila Tapia, Andrea Bogart, Rooney Mara, Vinessa Shaw, Channing Tatum. Distributed by Open Road Films.

Running time: 1 hours, 46 minutes.

Parent's guide: R (for sexuality, nudity, violence and language).