Serving as Steven Soderbergh’s final film, Side Effects is a psychological thriller that reunites the director with his Contagion screenwriter Scott Z. Burns. Following a troubled young woman named Emily (Rooney Mara), the film looks at the unexpected side effects that prescribed drugs can have, as Emily is prescribed Ablixa by her psychiatrist (Jude Law), a drug intended to treat anxiety but one that has a surprising effect on her relationship with her newly paroled husband Martin (Channing Tatum). As Emily’s world slowly unravels, is everything as simple as it originally seems, or are there more side effects to be uncovered?
Side Effects is a brilliantly paced and cleverly constructed thriller with constant twists that you won’t see coming. Having written about the film beforehand and seeing the numerous trailers, I would have never predicted how the story was going to progress, and certainly wouldn’t have imagined its outcome. The films disturbing revelations come surprise after surprise, and to mention any more in terms of the plot would be a discredit to the brilliantly written script.
A great thing about Soderbergh’s films is that he always handles the genre and its themes perfectly. Mental health has been explored quite a lot in recent cinema, with The Perks Of Being A Wallflower and Silver Linings Playbook being the best of the bunch, but whilst Side Effects deals primarily with similar issues, it instead puts its focus on the drugs used to help keep such an illness under control. Much like with Soderbergh’s 2011 film Contagion, writer Scott Z. Burns is a master of fact-based scenarios; as easy as it was to believe the information given about an international killer virus, it’s just as easy to be taken in by the serious facts discussed here, especially when you’re made aware that more US citizens die from prescription drug abuse than they do from car accidents.
Another strong quality of Side Effects is the cast, each of whom give outstanding and engaging performances throughout. Channing Tatum doesn’t have a great amount of screen time, and I would have happily seen more of Catherine Zeta-Jones who gives one of her best performances in years. Jude Law, especially, is brilliantly cast as he goes from empathetic to ruthless detective superbly. It is Rooney Mara that excels though, creating a brilliant atmospheric darkness with her character that shadows the whole film. As they are all quite unsympathetic characters, Soderbergh is able to be daring in where he takes the film, as he puts his characters through the worst of it without the audience being affected by their motives.
But whilst these twists play tricks on your mind, Side Effects also tampers with the way you view the film, as it is filmed in a hazy, soft focus. It really does look great and this filming method suits the film perfectly.
As a fitting sign-off for the director, it’s worth being reminded of his directorial debut Sex, Lies, And Videotapes, as all three of these elements are brought together at the end of this film as well. Done purposefully or not, Side Effects is definitely my favourite Soderbergh film so far, and it will be a huge shame if it is his last. Either way, he couldn’t have left on a better high.