I don’t think they did the early marketing of Side Effects very well, particularly in the US, as it was presented as if this was in the vein of Steven Soderbergh’s ensemble tales like Traffic and Contagion, but this time taking on the pharmaceutical industry. However it isn’t anything really like them – although it rather deliberately starts out like them and retains a streak of questioning our love of prescription drugs – as this is really a full-on twisty, turny thriller designed to keep you guessing as to what’s really going on.
Emily (Rooney Mara) has just been reunited with her husband, Martin (Channing Tatum), who’s been in prison for financial misdealings. However things are far from perfect for her, resulting in her smashing her car into a wall in an apparent attempt to kill herself. This brings psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) into her life, who diagnoses severe depression. After trying different drugs she eventually starts taking an experimental new medication called Ablixa.
Side effects begin manifesting when Martin finds her sleepwalking, but Emily doesn’t want to give up the drug as she says it’s helping. However things take a far more serious turn when Emily stabs Martin to death, apparently in a sleepwalking state. The police charge her with murder and try to get Jonathan to help them convict her, but he believes Emily couldn’t help what she did due to her medicated state.
However, as Jonathan’s life begins to fall apart, with his medical practice partners and drug companies distancing themselves from him while simultaneously questioning his motives for so freely prescribing drugs (he was being paid to be put his patients into a medical trial), as well as the emergence of the mysterious Dr. Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), he begins to suspect things are more complex than they first appear.
Soderbergh has claimed the likes of Fatal Attraction were his main inspiration for Side Effects and you can certainly see where he’s come from, and it’s also obvious that he’s enjoying being a bit Hitchcockian as well – after all, he takes the Psycho turn of killing off Channing Tatum about half an hour in. It’s a fun film that may tell a well-worn tale in some respects but does it in a fresh way and continues further than most would.
Early on it really does feel like Soderbergh is taking on the world’s increasing dependence on medication to control our every mood, as well as the danger of taking experimental medications, especially those designed to alter our behaviour. However the film begins to go in different and just as interesting directions, managing to do so organically so it doesn’t feel like the film has been trying to con you. That said, if you were enjoying the icy, sad look at depression and our pharmaceutical dependence, you may not fully appreciate the turns the movie makes.
I also liked the fact that most thrillers would have ended about two-thirds of the way through this story, while feeling very smug about its cleverness. However, Side Effects continues on and shows us what happens next as Jonathan has to get creative to put things right.
The whole thing is admittedly pure hokum and wouldn’t be even remotely believable in real life, but it’s all pulled together so well by Soderbergh and Scott Z. Burns’ screenplay that it’s difficult not to get sucked in and enjoy every unlikely twist and turn as they unravel.
It is rather unfortunate though that like Fatal Attraction and many of its 80s ilk, Side Effects eventually feels the need to make female sexuality – and more particularly female same-sex attraction – look dangerous and illicit. You’d have hoped that in this day and age we could have gotten past that, but it’s shoehorned into the film even though it’s not really necessary – indeed it’s a bit of a cheap way to explain certain things.
Overall Verdict: A fun, twisty thriller that slides through different genres, taking you in entertaining and unexpected direction as Soderbergh masterfully tries to keep you guessing both about what’s happened and what can be done about it.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac