It’s always fun when a tight little thriller like “Side Effects” works its way into your brain, sending you in one direction before pulling you sharply the other way — allowing you to marvel at how cleverly it set you up from the start.
This medical/crime thriller marks the reunion of director Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns, who collaborated on the compelling pandemic thriller “Contagion.” And while “Side Effects” isn’t as multileveled as “Contagion,” it does play upon similar fears of modern medicine.
After a prologue that suggests the bloody outcome ahead, Soderbergh and Burns introduce the players. Emily Taylor (played by Rooney Mara) is the frail wife of Martin Taylor (Channing Tatum), who has just finished a four-year prison stint for insider trading. Martin is eager to get back to his Wall Street life and restore his fortune and reputation — until Emily’s depression leads her to a suicide attempt in which she runs her car into a parking-garage wall.
In the emergency room, Emily meets a psychiatrist, Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), who consults with her former psychiatrist (Catherine Zeta-Jones) before prescribing medication. When the Zoloft and Prozac don’t seem to be working, Emily persuades Dr. Banks to prescribe one of the newer drugs, Ablixa. She seems to be improving, until she starts suffering the side effects — particularly sleepwalking, which leads us to the trail of blood we saw at the beginning.
It wouldn’t be fair to say much more, except that the case draws Banks into some dark territory and takes the story through some crafty twists and turns. Along the way, Soderbergh and Burns plant a little commentary about the influence pharmaceutical companies have on doctors and (through pernicious advertising) on their patients.
Soderbergh builds the tension slowly, starting with sumptuous images of the characters’ luxe surroundings (photographed by Soderbergh, under his usual pseudonym, Peter Andrews) before unwinding the surprises in the plot. He gets some strong work out of Law and Zeta-Jones as the doctors embroiled in Emily’s case, but it’s Mara (in her first major role since “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”) who carries the film with her mercurial beauty and subtle mood changes.
Steven Soderbergh’s thriller is a sly, sharp tale of medicine and murder.
Where • Theaters everywhere.
When • Opens today.
Rating • R for sexuality, nudity, violence and language.
Running time • 104 minutes.