Channing-Tatum-Rooney-Mara-Side-EffectsAt first, Side Effects appears to be the logical companion film to Steven Soderbergh‘s Contagion, that paranoid plague fable from 2011 which featured a cast of big names falling ill to the Nastiest Flu Ever. But after peeling away some of the layers and getting through the red herrings, it’s simply an old-fashioned murder mystery-thriller disguised as a paranoid commentary on ruthless pharmaceutical monopolies.

Here Soderbergh rallies his usual roster of acting talent. Channing Tatum (Magic Mike), Catherine Zeta-Jones (Ocean’s Twelve), and Jude Law (Contagion) have all placed their trust in the director’s hands again. This time, though, Rooney Mara is the newbie to the Soder-verse, playing the severely depressed young wife of a hotshot stock trader who falls into some legal woes after starting a regimen of brand-spankin’ new medication prescribed by her suave psychiatrist (Law). But it’s not her fault that she’s a sad sack of potatoes; her life has been turned upside down — no more gorgeous McMansion, no more designer wardrobe¬†— after her husband’s stint in prison for a white collar crime.

To say what happens in the first act of this psychological thriller would be to give away what those marketers have worked so hard to avoid spoiling in every trailer and TV spot in existence. But needless to say, what happens creates a nightmare for Law’s character, Dr. Jonathan Banks. His practice is in jeopardy! His wife feels neglected and betrayed! And someone is screwing with his sanity. That all said, the film is mostly Law’s show, and he adequately plays a man desperate to straighten this shit out while navigating his way through the questionable politics of pharmaceutical endorsements and tempting incentives.

Mara, who appears to be easing herself out of Dragon Tattoo mode (seriously, she could still cut glass with those cheekbones), wears depression well. Throughout most of the film we’re left to wonder what the hell is wrong with her, but the bigger question becomes a matter of learning who to trust in this labyrinthine story. And then there’s Zeta-Jones as an unscrupulous therapist who pops up halfway through to supply Banks with a few clues for his personal investigation. She comes off more like a sexually repressed librarian who knows how to keep a good secret or two.

The screenplay, from¬†Contagion‘s very own Scott Z. Burns, has its obligatory twists and turns, including a satisfying ending with a slightly ludicrous plot development that doesn’t shy away from its blatancy. As for the rest of the film, Soderbergh weighs the film down with a foreboding sense of dread and a cool, conspiratorial tone, which is a good thing. This is thanks in part to the moody cinematography and choice camera angles that work to elevate this movie from late-night cable fodder to compelling, Hitchcockian heights — all prepped and ready to be consumed by 21st century audiences already cynical about the nature of the beast that is the medical drug industry.

Final Rating: Four out of Five stars

Find Hiko Mitsuzuka on Twitter at (@TheFirstEcho)