Side Effects Review
Steven Soderbergh’s final film (allegedly) before he puts his feet up with pipe and slippers, Side Effects is a dark Hitchcockian game of smoke and mirrors, and is certainly up there with the director’s best work. Beginning as a medical drama in the vein of his 2011 flick Contagion, the story takes a left turn into conspiracy thriller territory while asking some pretty searching questions about the drugs industry. By the end though, these have been more or less been forgotten in favour of the conventional thriller format, but you’ll be too engrossed in trying to figure out what on earth is going on to mind too much.
Soderbergh tips his hat to Hitchcock’s Psycho more than once, beginning with the opening credits as the camera pans across a city skyline before zooming in on a seemingly random window in an apartment block. No illicit love affair here though; instead, there’s a trail of blood across the floor. The story then rewinds three months earlier and we meet Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara), a young wife waiting for her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) to be released from prison after being convicted of insider trading. She should be happy, but in fact she’s battling with depression. After a failed suicide attempt she agrees to get psychiatric help from Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), who tries to find a drug that will help her cope. But then a shocking incident occurs (which, like Janet Leigh’s exit from Psycho, is best left unknown until you see it for yourself) and Banks’ world turns upside down.
It’s not just Hitchcock’s classic shocker that screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (collaborating with Soderbergh for the third time after The Informant! and Contagion) has borrowed from. Recurring themes from across the Master of Suspense’s career crop up; the innocent (?) man trying to clear his name, shadowy dealings with psychology and psychiatry, the person whose identity masks another personality... it’s a rich Hitch soup, but viewed through Soderbergh’s unique prism. One of the chief pleasures of any Soderbergh film is its cinematography, shot by the director himself (but credited as always to the mysterious Peter Andrews). The rich visual palette is as striking as ever - nobody does night like him - and if he is indeed retiring, Hollywood has lost a valuable asset.
That’s not to say Side Effects is a frivolous entertainment. This is a film all about consequences, intended and unintended. What are casually described as ‘side effects’ on a small label on a bottle of pills can in fact have catastrophic consequences further down the line through a domino effect: one small side effect might lead to another, which leads to another, which leads to another, and so on. Eventually the side effects become so powerful they are no longer the by-product; they have the power to redirect events in their direction - an idea mirrored in the film’s plot. Soderbergh thoroughly disorientates you by setting off his line of dominoes at a fair old pace, but the pleasure is trying to figure out in which direction they are going.
It does raise a few serious questions about the accountability of the drugs industry (just where does the blame lie when something goes wrong?), and its willingness to markets its products as a solution to people’s problems, rather than as a temporary aid. But it then discards these issues in favour of a more conventional thriller, albeit a highly entertaining one. Jude Law is on excellent form here, far better suited to playing a successful doctor than the irate blogger in Contagion. Mara is also terrific in the plum role of the depressed wife whose actions and motives are far from clear, while a purring Catherine Zeta-Jones has fun as a fellow doctor who previously treated Emily. It may not ultimately be the critique it initially promises, but Side Effects delivers Class A thrills all the same.