Side Effects is reportedly Soderbergh’s final film as director, also marks an incredible four films in two years for him, with Haywire, Magic Mike and Contagion all being released since 2011. If it is indeed the case that Soderbergh is leaving the director chair for good, then Side Effects is a fitting end to a memorable career.
Emily Taylor, despite being reunited with her husband from prison, becomes severely depressed with emotional episodes and suicide attempts. Her psychiatrist, Jonathan Banks, after conferring with her previous doctor, eventually prescribes an experimental new medication called Ablixa. The plot thickens when the side effects of the drug lead to Emily killing her husband in a “sleepwalking” state. With Emily plea-bargained into mental hospital confinement and Dr. Banks’ practice crumbling around him, the case seems closed. However, Dr. Banks cannot accept full responsibility and investigates to clear his name. What follows is a dark quest that threatens to tear what’s left of his life apart even as he discovers the diabolical truth of this tragedy.
Having being majorly disappointed with 2011’s Contagion, expectations were lowered for Side Effects. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as it far exceeded them. Rooney Mara continues her impressive run of performances, after The Social Network and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, here as the depressed Emily. She spends most of the film crying, but she injects a huge amount of conviction into it that she genuinely comes across as mentally unstable. Jude Law appears to be following the same line that DiCaprio did, by appearing in films early in his career that would cement him as a ‘heart-throb’, but now his choices are more challenging, exposing his real talent: Law is perfect as the concerned psychiatrist. And while Channing Tatum isn’t quite up to the level of Mara and Law, he suffices as Emily’s husband, and plays a more important role than first thought. Catherine Zita Jones is the weakest link though, and something just seems off about her casting – maybe it’s something as simple as the glasses, but she’s not totally convincing as Emily’s first doctor with a secret.
Narratively, Side Effects takes its time to gain steam. But by the end, it’s apparent that the slow start is wholly necessary to tell the full story – screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (who has collaborated with Soderbergh in the past on The Bourne Ultimatum, Contagion and The Informant!) cleverly litters clues throughout the first act, but they are near impossible to find on first viewing. It’s only when you’re given the bigger picture at the end of the film that it all makes sense. As for the ending itself, Side Effects is a film that’s never satisfied with its many potential wrap-up scenarios. In the final few minutes, there’s twist after twist, all of them being perfectly acceptable on their own as a climax. When the film finally does come to a stop, it’s not at the finale that I personally felt was the strongest, and could possibly have taken one turn too many. Nevertheless, it’s been quite some time since a film had me guessing right up until the credits.
For those who see it with minimal knowledge of its content, Side Effects is bound to be a pleasant surprise. For those who choose to see it based on the trailer, such as myself, it will still greatly entertain. With strong performances and an original script that, unlike the majority of mainstream cinema nowadays, demands your full attention, it’s the swan song that any director would wish for.