A sly one, "Side Effects" is a movie in which the main character's pharmacological state of mind is never entirely certain.
In such a role it's critical to have someone who can keep an audience guessing as to the state of that mind, moment to moment. How dim, how smart, how foggy, how alert is she supposed to be at any given point in the story? With the right actress those questions take you somewhere, even if you're blindfolded.
With Rooney Mara as the woman in question — a poised, tense Manhattanite prescribed anti-anxiety medication by her psychiatrist with newsworthy results — "Side Effects" finds its ideal performer. Written in sharp, punchy exchanges by Scott Z. Burns and directed by Steven Soderbergh, the film is more about genre twists and reconfigurations than showy performance skill.
Wide-eyed, a sphinx who eludes easy understanding, Mara doesn't grab the screen so much as regard it, warily. (She played Mark Zuckerberg's aghast girlfriend at the beginning of "The Social Network," and the heavily inked computer wizard in the remake of "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," both directed by David Fincher.)
"Side Effects" marks the third time Burns and Soderbergh have collaborated as screenwriter and director, following the larky Matt Damon agribusiness docudrama "The Informant!" and the pandemic procedural "Contagion," also starring Damon. We know from the beginning that blood will be spilled. In a prologue riffing on the opening shot sequence of "Psycho," Soderbergh's camera selects an anonymous window among hundreds, glides in and through it for a better look, noses around the apartment ... and shows us the aftermath of what appears to be a murder.
Roughly a third of "Side Effects" takes place before that bloody incident, and two-thirds of it picks up the serpentine action afterward. At the start Rooney's Emily cannot find her bearings. Her husband, played by Channing Tatum, is about to be sprung from prison, after serving a sentence for insider trading. Reunited, they struggle for a reconnection. After a suicide attempt, Emily is prescribed antidepressants by her psychiatrist (Jude Law), whose chance to benefit from enrolling the right patient in a yearlong clinical drug trial will bring him $50,000 on the side.
Nice perk. But is the doctor's diagnosis of Emily's condition accurate? Enough of "Side Effects" qualifies as a thriller, and a mystery, that we'll keep mum regarding its surprises. Catherine Zeta-Jones plays a formidable fellow psychiatrist, familiar with Emily's case and her depression. Burns' plotting gets a little knotty in the third act, but he's a smart writer, who has a knack for juggling an array of characters of varying intelligence and varying corruption levels.
Soderbergh shoots digitally under his usual fake name, Peter Andrews, casting a vaguely sickening orange tint to some of the interiors. The composer Thomas Newman ditches his usual heavy hand for a score of crafty insinuation. As the Law character slides, nervously, to the center of "Side Effects," Soderbergh relishes making him sweat for his supper, and for plot developments that I cannot reveal to you without full FDA approval.
'Side Effects' -- 3 stars
MPAA rating: R (for sexuality, nudity, violence and language)
Running time: 1:45