"Drugs don't make you anything you're not - they just make it easier to be who you are," reasons Jude Law's psychiatrist mid-prescription, in a line that sums up the reality behind Steven Soderbergh's theoretical swansong. Law's character Jonathan Banks is in a profession ruled by pills and the companies that produce them, and screenwriter Scott Z Burns seems promisingly intent on using genre trappings to get at the heart of a real and troubling truth.
Rooney Mara is Emily, a young woman whose newlywed bliss is cut short when her high-flying husband (Channing Tatum) is imprisoned for insider trading. As we pick up, he's just been released and she's trying desperately to be the perfect wife, but crippling depression is rapidly getting the better of her. After landing up in hospital, she agrees to outpatient therapy with Banks, who eagerly starts her on a series of drug treatments.
Their sessions play like an obligation on both sides, a necessary preamble to the next prescription; there's little sense Banks has real interest in getting to the root of Emily's problems through talk therapy, although he does contact her ex-therapist (Catherine Zeta-Jones) for guidance.
Soderbergh and Burns create a muted mad world in which conversations are remote, people are impenetrable and pills are everywhere. At a slick Wall Street party, a friend responds to Emily's distress by recommending "a drug that really worked for her"; the British-born Banks, we learn, moved across the pond to work because of the more progressive approach to prescribing. After several treatments fail to help, he enlists Emily in a clinical trial of a new medication called Ablixa, which works like a charm - she bounces back to life with mood, appetite and sex drive all blazing - until the side effects kick in and things get very frightening, very fast.
Soderbergh wrong-foots us into thinking he's laying his cards on the table early on, with a Psycho-tinged opening shot that pans across a cityscape and through an apartment window, revealing blood-stained glimpses of the scene within before flashing back three months. In many scripts this mysterious moment would be the ending everything is building to; here it's only a midpoint.
It's a fascinating performance from Law, tormented noir hero one moment and unscrupulous maybe-villain the next, while Mara's impassive features are used to convey a different kind of mystery than for Lisbeth Salander in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.
While it ultimately has less to say than it initially promises, Side Effects is a taut, disciplined thriller that's consistently and thrillingly a step ahead of its audience, shot through with a current of justified paranoia.