Side Effects is Steven Soderbergh’s penultimate film before he goes on an unspecified hiatus from the director’s chair. Continuing the theme of medical terror he explored in 2011’s Contagion, Soderbergh brings it straight into the everyday home. Instead of taking a terrifyingly plausible look at the destructive natural power of the virus, here he forces us to examine what most of us voluntarily take almost every single day, a manufactured pharmaceutical drug.
Rooney Mara, perhaps best known for her work as the titular character in Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, stars as Emily Taylor. Emily suffers from clinical depression. After being reunited with her husband, Martin (Channing Tatum), who has been recently freed from prison, her symptoms continue to develop even becoming suicidal.
In desperation she turns to her psychiatrist, Jonathan Banks (Jude Law). After some deliberation, and a lack of success with more conventional pharmaceuticals, he prescribes her a new experimental drug, Ablixa. As the title suggests Emily suffers devastating side effects, and Dr Banks is forced to take the full blame for her actions. Unwilling to accept his condemnation so easily, Banks begins to investigate. It is at this point that Side Effects really starts to take hold.
From the opening zoom inside Emily’s apartment to the creeping tracking shot following a crimson trail on the floor, the Hitchcockian influence is undeniable. With the troubled female lead and untrustworthy figures of power, Soderbergh draws the audience into Emily’s complex web of psychology, drugs and the human centrifuge which mixes the two together. If she was a blonde and not brunette you would almost forgive yourself for believing it was the ‘Master of Suspense’ behind the camera and not the man who last year directed Magic Mike.
Side Effects’ first third is really the trailing queue waiting to board the ride; it introduces the key players, sets up the back story and gives you an idea of the world they inhabit but it does so quite slowly. After offering a glimpse of the violence to come at the very start of the film, this extended flashback to the time just before it occurs simply leaves you waiting for it to happen. Once it does however, Soderbergh leaves no time for you to catch your breath. Suddenly, the pace accelerates and the narrative twists, turns and loop-the-loops until you almost forget where you started.
Providing that you have paid attention and remembered character names, relationships, and actions you should be able to keep some sort of grasp on the plot but at times I was left a little perplexed. Part of this is down to the number of worlds the story plays out in. It goes from Emily’s home life to Dr Banks’ psychiatric offices, to the upper echelons of pharmaceutical marketing and drug development and never really lets you settle in one.
Thankfully, the character performances are such that often you don’t need context to understand more about them. It isn’t just Mara’s brilliantly portrayed Emily that has troubled psychological layers. Jude Law takes Dr Banks from an arrogant practitioner to a shamed, shunned wreck but keeps the character’s self-belief throughout. What was the source of his inflated ego becomes the driving force behind his redemption. A special mention should also go to Catherine Zeta-Jones, who also takes a relatively simplistic character and fuels her with captivating complexity.
Side Effects, if nothing else evokes one question; who gives psychiatric help to the psychiatrists? Whilst it wears it’s preoccupation with the dangers of prescription drugs on its sleeve, Side Effects finds its real scares in the people who prescribe them.