Side Effects is director Steven Soderbergh’s last film for the cinema, ever (ever, ever, ever?), and he will next be seen directing the HBO TV movie Behind the Candelabra about the extravagant pianist, Liberace. His departure from Hollywood is rooted in what he called the “absolutely horrible” treatment of directors by financiers, with respect to their disregard of the needs of the audience.
Soderbergh’s always been interested in individuals up against a greater foe, whether that’s against film producers (him, apparently), a polluting corporation (Erin Brokovich), a Las Vegas casino (Oceans 11 onward), or the entire drug trade (Traffic); he likes to put characters out of their depth to see them fight through to the end. Side Effects looks to be a similar story, but for his grand finale, he’s added a twist.
Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) is a 27-year-old ad-agency worker, who has a nice job and a nice flat, but her husband, Martin (Channing Tatum, rejoining Soderburgh after starring in his writing debut, Magic Mike) is about to be released after four years jail time for insider trading. She seems to have everything together, but the day after Martin comes home, she attempts to harm herself. After treatment in hospital, she agrees to attend the clinic of psychologist, Dr Jonathan Banks (Jude Law).
After first prescriptions fail to remove the blanket of depression she suffers, Banks tries a new drug, one introduced to him by a pharmaceutical rep at a paid-for dinner in a swanky restaurant. Unfortunately for him, Emily has a bad reaction to a combination of his prescribed drugs and commits a terrible crime while under their influence.
Soderbergh navigates us through his familiar territory of courtrooms and non-descript offices, taking apart how the vulnerable are prescribed drugs with unknown consequences, by doctors who are embedded in a big-pharma relationship that greases the wheels of the medical industry. Banks faces scrutinisation by medical board investigators, and his practice partners, concerned for their reputation, put the pressure on him. Meanwhile, Emily is in custody awaiting the result of a trial hearing on her likely state of mind.
It seems as if no one person is to blame, and Soderbergh does an excellent job of spinning the characters around the crime, each with a viable get-out clause. Emily’s crime appears to be a case of unfortunate circumstance that no one could have foreseen. Certainly, we are presented with questions about the wisdom of the corporation-doctor-patient relationship. Then, things shift into a much more thrilling Hitchcockian gear of personal jeopardy.
This is where Mara really begins to disturb. Her performance of someone caught in the shadows of mental illness is so perfect. She flits from a weak, vulnerable person to someone darker, chilling, just as quiet, but with a design at work. What seems to be one plot melds into a different one entirely. Don’t expect a righteous, Soderbergh courtroom battle royale; this is a battle of minds, duking it out in a game of guilty or not guilty? The frame of “victim” shifts sharply against Banks, with swift consequences for his professional and personal life. Law plays it pretty straight, like ol’ Jimmy Stewart would have done; an ordinary man in a tweed suit jacket, up against the odds.
The plot twist does go a bit too far, mind. Emily’s previous psychiatrist, the viperish Dr Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones, who admitted recently to suffering depression), is part of a more elaborate leftfield plot addition that seems far-fetched to say the least. I think it would have been better if only Banks and Emily were locked into a desperate struggle to find the truth, a tale of a wayward professional caught by an individual who could end his career.
Who knows, maybe Soderbergh wanted to make a sharp swerve from his usual shtick, just to mess with our minds. It’s still a gripping film and should be seen for Mara’s performance.