Dir. Steven Soderbergh
(2013, R, 106 minutes)

From a director other than Steven Soderbergh, Side Effects might have gone haywire (coincidentally, also the title of a Soderbergh film). It’s a thriller with touches of noir and twists that border on the absurd, but he’s a restrained filmmaker who counters the story’s melodramatic turns with his understated style, making even the most implausible developments coolly satisfying. This is not among his best, but it’s a finely tuned psychodrama.

It’s a bit like two films in one, which shouldn’t be compatible with each other, but work anyway because of how cleverly one transitions into the other. The first is a pointed observation of the modern pharmaceutical culture, where powerful medications are marketed directly to consumers on TV and billboards – America is unique in that regard – and when a young woman is in distress, co-workers and acquaintances recommend medications instead of offering comfort.

The young woman is Emily (Rooney Mara), whose husband, Martin (Channing Tatum), has just been released from prison after serving time for insider trading. She has suffered depression before and is experiencing another bout, and after an episode her new psychiatrist, Dr. Banks (Jude Law), begins to treat her with a promising new drug.

Dr. Banks is also being paid to consult on an unrelated clinical trial, and when he offers the experimental treatment to a patient the sales pitch is too good to resist – free pills just for signing on the dotted line. We can see here how such a partnership between health professionals and drug companies can lead to dangerous conflicts of interest.

This is an interesting study of how patients – treated more like customers – can be sold into potentially risky treatments from both ends, and how the influence of money can cloud the ethics of health care. But then the film switches gears. The screenplay is by Scott Z. Burns, who also wrote Contagion for Soderbergh, as well as the even more ingenious The Informant!; to reveal more of his plot would give too much away, so suffice it to say that the film shifts its point of view midway through and becomes something quite different.

I’m pretty sure, looking back, that the script plays fair with the audience, and even at its strangest, Soderbergh conducts it with such ease and control, keeping the tension at a low, tantalizing simmer, that I found it easy to suspend my disbelief until the end credits, after which I didn’t mind the implausibility, because it’s executed with skill. It’s fun just to go along for the ride.