Seems like director Steven Soderbergh has been on a roll lately. The past three years have been quite busy for the acclaimed filmmaker, and this 2013, he has reunited with the filmmakers who made us afraid of an invisible killer with 2011’s “Contagion”. I guess as a follow up to his “Magic Mike”, Soderbegh may have wanted to return to a premise that drives a very real sense of fear in our modern society, and that is the possible fact that we are all potential guinea pigs to pharmaceutical companies. At first glance at the trailers, one wouldn’t be hard-pressed to say that “Side Effects” is a sort of a moral drama, but really, the film is more a psychological thriller than what was given at first impression.
Martin (Channing Tatum) and Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) is a young married couple who is going through a rough patch. Martin had been convicted for insider trading and they have lost everything. Emily was able to keep things together while he was in jail despite her bouts with depression. Upon Martin’s release, the reunion stirs up old feelings and Emily tries to kill herself. Her failed suicide attempt puts her under the care of a psychologist, Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) who expresses genuine concern for Emily’s challenges and is even being encouraged by Emily‘s former doctor, Victoria Seibert (Catherine Zeta-Jones) to handle the case. Banks tries one medication after another, until Emily tries to settle in with a new drug despite its side effects. But what they don’t know is that this side effect is going to take toll on all their lives; one fatal and one professional toll.
“Side Effects” is a very difficult film to review since much of the power of its narrative would rely on the viewer knowing absolutely nothing about its screenplay, which was probably why the trailer gave a vague and misleading view as to what the movie is all about. I will attempt to state my observations as vague as possible. Much of the film’s first act is spent on the viewer getting to know our characters, what are their situations, and just how deep Emily’s condition really is. It was a wise move, as the screenplay by Scott Z. Burns made an effort to make us understand just what is bugging Emily, which became a fine groundwork to its more dramatic second act. Rooney Mara was fantastic in her portrayal of a confused, depressed and shattered wife of an ex-con.
Once things take off, and the core of the plot becomes visible, Soderbergh and Burns then present a moral quandary. Just what are the stakes and whose mistake was it? Was a matter of malpractice, a case of a mistaken prescription or was it something else? How can a doctor protect both himself and his patient? The character Jonathan Banks become as much an area of focus as Emily since much of the film began to revolve around his life. Jude Law does a great job in his portrayal, as he manages to connect with the role. I could easily see the confusion behind his conflicted emotions. I am not a fan of Law, but even I had to admit that he was able to command the drama of the second act.
The many zig zags of the second half reach the tipping point in the third act. The truth and the lies all begin to unravel. In this turn, the script becomes the ‘wronged man’ mystery in the manner the film is set up to reveal, set up once again and then expose. The movements in the film were executed with precision, as the direction maneuvered around its rather central areas with an almost bare bones approach. Rooney Mara, Jude Law and Catherine Zeta-Jones all became the central focus of its narrative. Soderbergh does not even try cheap editing tricks to strike home the intended surprises. He keeps the snazzy shots limited to Emily’s flashbacks, that her state of paranoia becomes much more relevant to its narrative. There are several twists and surprises in the film, and the screenplay worked remarkably well with Soderbergh’s direction.
Soderbergh is an excellent filmmaker and he knew exactly that a scene and the story should dictate the look and atmosphere of this film. “Side Effects” has the look and feel of a Soderbergh movie which makes it very recognizable much as his recent movies “Haywire“ and “Contagion“, but distancing itself from his more mainstream hits such as “OceansEleven“. He does not gloss over its look, but he rather sticks to no-nonsense shots that almost makes the atmosphere appear colder and functional, but certainly natural looking. The way he made the shots looked raw, and yet beautifully graceful.
“Side Effects” is a very good film. If I had to say one area that I thought would’ve used more polishing or smoothing over, perhaps I could only say that it got a little too busy and what I expected wasn’t really what it was. This could either be a good or a bad thing, and while it was very good for what it wanted to be, there was a moment or two that I hoped that the film was really about the injustices done by the pharmaceutical companies and how doctors prescribe drugs because they get paid to do so. There is a moral compass and a modern fear here that didn’t quite make it home. I am all for surprises and twists, but then the film became just another thriller in the vein of "Malice". But in the end, “Side Effects” is still an impressive film and was easy to enjoy. It is a well-made psychological thriller-drama that is sexy, intriguing and fun to watch. Hey, doctors are still are still our friends; we just need to make sure who we let inside to mess around our heads.