Side Effects, the new film from director Steven Soderbergh promises a cocktail of romance, thrills, and deception as it puts a literal twist on the psychological thriller and presents a story in which everyone’s motives are unclear. In the film, Emily (Rooney Mara) and Martin Taylor (Channing Tatum) were happily married and part of New York’s elite before Martin was sent to jail for insider trading. Four years later, Emily struggles to make ends meet after the man who swept her off her feet lost everything they had. When Martin comes home, it’s Emily who has the hard time adjusting. She falls into a deep depression and attempts suicide by crashing her car into a parking garage wall. In the ER, she meets Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), a psychiatrist who takes her on as a patient. Emily, Martin, and Banks are committed to getting the depression under control so the Taylors can start their lives over again. After consulting with Emily’s old psychiatrist, Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), Banks puts her on a new antidepressant, Ablixa. Emily has had complications with antidepressants before, but the doctors hope that this latest drug will give her the relief she needs. Quickly, the drug starts to work, but it also causes her serious sleepwalking spells. Emily refuses to change her medication, so Banks adds meds to the rotation to fight the sleepwalking. Her suicidal tendencies return, though, and finally, while sleepwalking, she kills Martin. With Emily locked in a mental hospital and his own career in serious jeopardy, Dr. Banks struggles to make sense of what happened and begins to suspect that Emily’s illness has been a hoax all along. But why?
Side Effects is skillfully directed by Steven Soderbergh. The cool colors and fuzzy edges of many scenes help create the sense that the audience is along for the emotional ride with Emily and Banks. The original music by Thomas Newman adds to the dizzying tone of some scenes while highlighting the tension of others. Overall, the sleek production casts the chaos of Emily’s inner-life into starker contrast.
In addition, the film showcases strong performances by each major cast member. The script sets the cast up for wide range of emotions and scenarios as many characters fall from grace, twisting from relatable beginnings to devious ends. The camera loves Rooney Mara and in this role she produces gut-wrenching moments of depression and later cold calculated sociopathy. Opposite her, Jude Law performs in a rare un-romantic role and he runs the gamut in his confusion over what pulled the rug out from under his life. As his new wife, Vinessa Shaw is skeptical without being too shrewd. Catherine Zeta-Jones brings pursed-lips, but not a lot of depth. Meanwhile, Channing Tatum doesn’t get much screen time, but doesn’t add much when he is on camera.
Despite the artful production, the plot of the film doesn’t quite hold together. The film starts as a tightly-wound psychological thriller, but as the story moves toward unraveling the truth about Emily, it becomes fuzzier and less compelling. Though Banks is clearly confused and his obsession begins to cloud his life, the second half of the film lacks the drive of the first half. This problem may be due to the switch that is flipped around the midpoint. The film moves quickly from the drama of Emily’s struggle with the drug to a legal drama. The first half of the film is strung together with flashing arrows indicting Big Pharma for the way it uses advertisements, lawyers, trials, and doctors to make a buck, sometimes at human costs. The audience sees Banks courted by a drug rep and pushed Ablixa by Dr. Siebert. As Banks begins to participate in a clinical trial, a patient signs up just to offset the cost of drugs and healthcare. While Emily struggles with depression and the numbing effects of her meds, the audience sees all the strings pulling on the system. The second half of the film doesn’t work as clearly. Sometimes the blame-game played with drug companies was heavy-handed, but it helped guide the moral universe of the story. In the absence of these indicators and with plot points that tie them in knots, the end of the film feels more unsatisfying than ambiguous. Because of the narrative issues, I rate Side Effects 3/5 stars.
Side Effects was written by Scott Z. Burns and directed by Steven Soderbergh. It runs 106 minutes and is rated R for sexuality, nudity, violence and language.