Jack-of-all-trades moviemaker Steven Soderbergh isn't interested in telling a straight story. He likes to tinker with the medium's formal properties, and his strongest films — Out of Sight, Ocean's Eleven, Bubble, Haywire — use pulp-novel plots to smooth over the discordant notes struck by Soderbergh's restless experiments with sound, vision, performance, and editing. His less successful films feel even more driven by weird wagers and stunts: The Good German tried to recreate the look of 1940s cinema by employing 1940s lighting and camera equipment, while The Informant! wondered what would happen if a film's voiceover was untrustworthy or counterfactual. Part of the fun of following this kind of prolific, frustrating artist comes from trying to guess what else he has up his sleeve.
Side Effects, Soderbergh's latest feature, traffics in foul play, experimental medications, and the shady shrinks who prescribe them. But oddly, it's a much better movie before its plot kicks in. The film stars Rooney Mara as Emily Taylor, a young woman waiting to reunite with her rich husband (Channing Tatum), who's been in federal prison for insider training. Emily has also been feeling out of sorts lately, so after she drives her car into a parking-garage wall, kindly Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) takes her as his patient and proffers a snazzy new medication that will blow the blues away.
For the first half of the film, Mara, who was indelible in David Fincher's 2010 The Social Network and Fincher's 2011 remake of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, occupies Side Effects' narrative center while acting as a kind of structuring absence. No matter how she's photographed — from above, from below, in long shot, in close-up, in flashbacks, hunkered down in either the lower left- or lower right-hand corner of the frame — she remains mysterious and psychologically opaque. Mara's childlike inscrutability also renders her strangely spooky, like a J-horror vision that's been cleaned up and made flesh.
But soon the focus shifts from the mysteries of Emily Taylor to the tribulations of Dr. Banks, who eventually decides to investigate the mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of his client's husband. Side Effects' gradual metamorphosis from off-kilter character study to conventional mystery is a mistake; it trades in mystery and provocation for certainty and resolution. And its climactic twists could have come from any straight-to-DVD thriller.