Steven Soderbergh has announced that Side Effects will be his last directed film; he’s retiring to work on other projects. If so, he picked a pretty good one to end a career on. With a genuinely surprising plot and great performances, it’s a tight little thriller.
Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) has been struggling since her stock broker husband Martin (Channing Tatum) was arrested for insider trading and sent to prison. He’s finally been released, and the nightmare should be over, but she’s still depressed, anxious, and harbouring thoughts of hurting herself.
After a self-inflicted car accident, she meets Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), a ex-pat British psychiatrist who has no misgivings about prescribing medication. (“Better living through chemistry” is one of his pithy lines.) He consults with Emily’s former therapist, Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who recommends a new drug called Ablixa. The pink pill lifts Emily’s mood and things start to turn around, although the meds now seem to give her a troubling tendency to sleepwalk.
Then something horrible happens, and the fallout from this event brings Banks’ professional conduct into question. As he works to clear his name, several intriguing twists take the story in strange and interesting directions.
As you can probably guess, Side Effects doesn’t have very much positive to say about doctors and antidepressants. As Emily struggles with her medication, others around her freely offer up names of the drugs that worked for them. Banks is a likable character, but he’s still complicit in a culture where pharmaceuticals are big money and patients are often treated like lab rats. And as things become more desperate, even the upstanding Banks is surprisingly quick to commit unethical acts to gather evidence. Still, it’s fun to watch him play detective, even if most of the time he doesn’t get anywhere.
But even though the story eventually focuses on Banks, the first half belongs to Emily. Mara’s portrayal of depression is absolutely convincing, as it must be for a film like this to work, and her character becomes even more layered as time goes on. Her best-known performance to date, as Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, may get more attention, but her work here is just as good.
The biggest star of the movie, however, is probably writer Scott Z. Burns, whose cracking script delivers not one but several major plot twists. They’re intelligently directed by Soderbergh, as well – casually-dropped names or small details immediately set the mind reeling as new questions unfold. It’s a welcome change from most modern filmmaking where the audience is always three steps ahead. The ending, given what goes on before, is a little conventional, but it satisfyingly resolves everything in a zippy running time of well under two hours.
Steven Soderbergh’s direction has always been a little inconsistent, but with Side Effects he’s definitely going out on a high note. Here’s hoping he changes his mind about retirement.
Tags: movie review