REVIEW: 'Side Effects'


Have you ever noticed the double meanings in names for pharmaceuticals? There’s a drug in Steven Soderbergh’s new film Side Effects that's responsible for the movie’s title; it’s called “Ablixa”. There must have been a marketer in the world of the film who was very pleased when she came up with the brand. It seems to convey so much at once: words like “able” or “bliss”. But there’s some menace there too – say “Ablixa” enough times, and it starts to sound threatening, almost like “obliterate”.

I expect this was Soderbergh’s goal. In Side Effects, he takes aim at the relationship between psychiatrists and their patients, as well as the pharmaceuticals that connect the dots. Soderbergh has attracted a strong cast, as usual, and uses them well. But in its third act, Side Effects follows the instructions on the bottle and turns into a typical psychological thriller, ending up like one of the character’s drug cocktails: effective, but limiting.

There’s a certain “ripped from the headlines” feel about the setup. Emily (Rooney Mara) welcomes her charming husband Martin (Channing Tatum) back home from a four-year stint in prison for insider trading. In his absence, all the trappings of her wealthy lifestyle have been stripped away, and she’s slipped into a functioning depression. But with Martin back, everyone assumes things will get back to normal.

Rooney Mara and Channing Tatum as Emily and Martin Taylor

Worryingly, Emily only gets worse – and a suicide attempt sends her into regular therapy with Dr. Jon Banks (Jude Law), a workaholic psychiatrist with a penchant for prescribing all sorts of antidepressants. It doesn’t help that Big Pharma is often hovering nearby, greasing Banks’ palm with consultancy money in exchange for willing patients.

Even so, Banks sincerely wants to help Emily. He’s simply a decent doctor who’s grown comfortable with the established system of medical gray areas and hazy drug trials. But as the side effects of the drugs Emily is taking spiral out of control, Banks’ life starts to fall apart, and he begins to question who is actually sick: Emily, or himself?

There are some particularly relevant ideas in the movie. The motivations of both doctors and drug companies are questioned, and it ties in well with recent real-world debates over mental illness and its treatment. Even so, the film isn’t sure at times how it wants to address the issues it raises. Sometimes it feels like the movie is about to tackle the topic head-on, and then it backs away.

It’s not entirely clear, for example, whether Law’s character decides to take a stand against the drug industry, or whether his experience with Emily only twists him up even more. And when he does turn the tables on the antagonists, it seems just a bit too easy, a bit too formulaic. That’s not to say the film doesn’t entertain, but it doesn’t really break new ground.

I’m told that one of the best exercises for actors is doing a scene in a mental hospital. This movie offers plenty of opportunity for that, and Rooney Mara is convincing as a young woman in the throes of mental illness. But Mara really shines when her depression is called into question - it forces us, maybe painfully, to think about people we know suffering from the same symptoms. The movie calls up the lingering doubts we sometimes have about depression: is the victim faking it? How do we really know they're sick?

The film becomes a traditional thriller as the truth of Emily's condition is revealed

Aside from the excellent performances Soderbergh gets from his cast, the director is well-recognized for his work as a cinematographer. Working here under his alias “Peter Andrews”, Soderbergh puts most of the frame into soft focus, referencing the “fog” some the characters experience when they’re on medication.  It’s a striking effect, reminiscent of the look Paul Thomas Anderson achieved last year in The Master – another film that comments on mental illness.

Despite its conventional structure, Side Effects remains an intelligent, twisty thriller that knows its limits. It doesn’t overplay the drama, and keeps a steady hand on its characters. The film is one of the last we’ll see by Soderbergh before he takes a much-publicized sabbatical from filmmaking, but it’s clear that the director is still comfortably in his prime. Side Effects gets three stars out of four.

Three Stars

What did you think of Side Effects? Did you get caught up in the mind games, or was the film too much of a formulaic thriller? Join the discussion in the comments section, and if you liked this review, check out some of my others here:


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