GREG'S GRADE: A

"Side Effects" opens with a wide shot of a building, the camera moving closer and closer to a window. Cut to the inside of an apartment. Blood on the floor. Bloody footprints. And then -- "three months earlier."

The film, reportedly the final theatrical effort from director Steven Soderbergh before his "retirement" at age 50, works its way back to this point sooner than you might expect.

We meet Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara from the American version of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo"), whose crippling depression comes racing back when her husband, Martin (Channing Tatum), is released from prison after serving time for insider trading. Deliberately crashing her car headfirst into the wall of a parking garage lands her in the care of a psychiatrist, Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law, doing his best work in years), who prescribes for her a variety of antidepressants -- none of which works until they try an experimental new drug called Ablixa, recommended by Emily's previous psychiatrist, Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones).

For a time, the medication appears to work, and Emily begins to lead a normal life again. But, as you may have surmised from the title, there is a substantial side effect -- sleepwalking. It seems innocuous enough at first -- Emily plays music, prepares food -- but during one such episode, she commits a bloody crime, bringing us back to where the movie began.

Emily is arrested, and Banks is brought in as an expert witness. "Did the person do it? Are they guilty?" asks his wife, Dierdre (Vinessa Shaw). "In this case, those are two very different things," he replies.

Describing more of the plot would require spoilers, so I will say only that there is much more to the story and Banks, an innocent man drawn into a situation much bigger than he realizes, is a classic Hitchcockian protagonist.

The movie, written by Scott Z. Burns, who also scripted Soderbergh's "Contagion" and "The Informant!," is a twisting, turning thriller of which the Master of Suspense would be proud. Normally, when a mystery lays all its cards on the table, it loses much of our interest. In "Side Effects," the opposite happens. Even after we get what appears to be a complete explanation, we're never quite sure what to make of anything. It's that good kind of paranoid confusion that places us in Banks's shoes as he tries to make sense of a chain of events that has ruined him both professionally and personally.

Soderbergh, as he has done over the course of more than two dozen features, guides the action with a steady yet unobtrusive hand. He allows the material to dictate how it is presented rather forcing a directorial vision replicated from an earlier film. Here, he is fond of having characters start a shot out of focus before moving into the focal range, perhaps a reflection of the uncertainty that surrounds so much of what happens.

I'm curious to see how the film holds up and changes on a second viewing because there is a lot at work here.

This is a real gem of a movie, especially given its early February release. If "Side Effects" truly is the last we see from Soderbergh on the big screen, it is a fine way for him to go out.

Rated R for sexuality, nudity, violence and language. 106 minutes.

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