It’s not surprising that the most interesting thing about the film “Side Effects” is the performance of Rooney Mara as the female lead, following her eye-popping leading role in “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.” This young woman knows how to create mystery and portray ambiguity and carry nuance on the screen. That puts her in some pretty rare company as an actress, and she’s only just begun. The movie itself can’t seem to decide between embracing confusion and settling for gift-wrapped conclusions. But if viewing any movie makes you go back and think about what clues you were given that you might have missed, then veteran director Steven Soderbergh has provided us with that exquisite rarity in Hollywood: originality.
Emily Taylor (Mara) is a 28-year-old woman whose husband, Martin (Channing Tatum), has been in prison for four years for insider trading. Yes, they’d enjoyed the high life very early in their marriage, but lately it’s been under the radar: living by herself and holding down a quiet office job and, every chance she gets, chaste conversation in the humorless visitation room of the prison, where shattered dreams are sadly recounted and gingerly preserved.
Finally, the big day comes when Martin is released, but suddenly Emily isn’t as happy as she always thought she would be. Maybe it’s something about the actual event not possibly fulfilling all the expectations assumed of it. Maybe she’s confronting the reality that they have both changed, and no longer enjoy the level of emotional compatibility they once did, except they’re not yet prepared to admit that to one another. Maybe it’s the crashing realization that things will never be the same again, and life together now seems to resemble but a mere shadow of their previous cornucopia. Maybe it’s her now ex-con husband’s immediate plans to get right back in the game, which is both expected and disappointing.
Emily Taylor is seriously depressed. So much so that she rams her car into the wall of a parking garage; presumably to get someone’s attention; maybe even her own. She finds herself in the care of a Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), a psychiatrist who still believes in talk therapy, but also willingly dispenses exotic pharmaceuticals.
Here’s where it gets really messy. Emily complains that the standard anti-depressants make her drowsy, and even make her newly released husband uninteresting to her (maybe she should have seen him in “Magic Mike”). When Dr. Banks tries to prescribe a new, experimental drug, for which he freely admits that he is receiving additional compensation, Emily Taylor goes off the rails, and does something that everybody now regrets. So, whose fault is it – hers, the pharmaceutical company’s, her psychiatrist’s, or that of a hedonistic society that sees no problem in ingesting something strong enough to make you feel really good? (Insert your favorite condemnation here.)
Now the plot twists come “fast and furious,” as viewers try to figure out who is deceiving whom, and who is being played by whom, and the list of candidates keeps growing. In the end, culpability seems to be liberally sprinkled everywhere, which doesn’t exactly make for a clear delineation of good guys and bad guys. But dealing in shades of grey feels real, even at the risk of diluting character loyalty. And so does the whole “feel no pain” prescription addiction subculture, which is more perniciously widespread than we’d like to believe.
Ronald P. Salfen is the minister at St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.