‘Side Effects’, a thriller first and a message film second

Side EffectsSide Effects Movie
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
United States, 2013

Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects is a smaller thriller than 2011’s Contagion, but as incisive in its critique of the pharmaceutical industry, psychiatry and the justice system.

Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) suffers from depression, and her condition doesn’t get any better when her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) is finally released from prison after serving time for insider trading. After a suicide attempt Emily convinces Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) to take her on as a private patient rather than admitting her to the hospital. While sleepwalking on an anti-depressant prescribed by her new shrink Emily commits a brutal crime

Side Effects works in fits and bursts, shifting the focus of the film from Emily to Dr. Banks somewhere around the midpoint and alternating between tragedy, thriller, and commentary. It feels fresh, but it has many forebears. Thriller fans will recognize elements of old classics like Witness for the Prosecution, alongside more modern takes on the cat and mouse of a murder trial (think: Primal Fear or even the more recent Love Crime).

Rooney Mara cleverly cast. Her best-known Hollywood role is still that of Lisbeth Salander in the remake of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. In that film, director David Fincher used her small stature and wide eyes to his advantage as a hint that some vulnerability existed beneath what appeared to be a hardened, snarling exterior. There’s a similar thread in Side Effects, though Soderbergh, perhaps hoping that audiences will recall the Salander role, reverses it: Emily is all tears and quaintness on the outside, and something else entirely within.

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While Side Effects has its targets, it’s a thriller first and a message film second. Still, Soderbergh and production designer Howard Cummings have plenty of fun with mock-pharmaceutical ads featuring happy women and fluffy dogs.  There’s even a perfectly captured Ablixa (the drug in question) commercial that feels pulled from a 2013 television. Everyone’s on pills in Side Effects. Emily’s former boss gives her advice on combating drug-induced nausea. A friend at a party recommends her favorite anti-depressants. Doctors prescribe pills to neutralize the side effects of other pills. It all becomes harrowingly comedic fairly quickly.

It’s Soderbergh and Burn’s take on the criminal process that’s a bit subtler. While the justice system ultimately prevails it’s only at the behest of an independent agent; this is a remnant of early film noirs and detective films who sought, sometimes to the chagrin of the now-obsolete Production Code, to portray the ineptitude of a police force by giving the main narrative thrust to private eyes rather than city-employed officials.

The last 25 minutes of Side Effects are twisting, clever fun. Though the payoff is a bit saccharine, it’s also satisfying, and doesn’t mitigate the commentary that precedes it. Even a somewhat unnecessary extended flashback sequence at the end isn’t enough to halt the momentum, and is no more on the nose than the majority of big-screen American thrillers.

- Neal Dhand

By Neal Dhand

Neal Dhand is a writer, director, and professor in Philadelphia. He's currently in post on the heist film Crooked & Narrow. He also blogs occasionally at DCP Film.

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