Side Effects Review

Director Steven Soderbergh has been prolific of late, with three features – Contagion, Haywire and Magic Mike – released in the UK over the last 18 months. His most recent contribution, though, was in person in Side By Side, Christopher Kenneally’s documentary concerned with the future of cinema as an industry and medium. Of the many interviewed he stood out as the staunchest advocate of shooting on digital rather than film; it’s interesting, then, that one of the most willing to embrace the future has been so keen to call it a day. Side Effects is, the 50-year-old claims, his final feature ‘film’ as he pursues other creative endeavours (one of which, a Liberace biopic, will soon air on HBO).

Rooney Mara plays Emily Taylor, whose husband Martin (Channing Tatum) is released from prison after a four-year sentence for insider trading. Emily is clearly troubled, for reasons which are unclear, and is soon being treated by psychiatrist Jonathan Banks (Jude Law). After consulting her previous doctor (Catherine Zeta-Jones) he prescribes anti-depressant medication – cue the side effects of the film’s title.

Thomas Newman’s tinkly score creates a vaguely uneasy atmosphere without ever suggesting the direction in which a scene will go; it’s one of Side Effects’ biggest strengths. Scott Z. Burns, for his third collaboration with Soderbergh (after The Informant! and Contagion) has penned a screenplay that moves along swiftly and repeatedly wrongfoots. There’s plenty of enjoyment to be had from this.

It’s grounded in a recognisable reality. The anti-depressant ‘Ablixa’ is marketed under the slogan ‘Take Back Tomorrow’ and there’s a comically clichéd advertisement on the firm’s website featuring a woman sitting under a rain cloud (someone had the idea of putting the website online for real – see here). There’s plenty of flair, too: one early shot, of Taylor’s half-distorted face in a mirror, invites the conclusion that this is how she sees herself. Later, she sees a poster for Ablixa by the subway; the woman on it looks remarkably similar and we cut back to Taylor’s face as she catches the eye of a guard who has seen her looking. Immediately after one of the film’s pivotal moments, Soderbergh (he directs photography, as often, under the name Peter Andrews) has the camera zoom in on a bottle of pills, accusingly.

And yet the plot turns undermine this reality, requiring a colossal suspension of disbelief and perhaps, finally, the film overreaches in a bid to offer narrative closure. The pharmaceutical angle is more a plot device than a genuine concern, and by halfway through the film is as much about Banks as it is about the Taylors. What is initially set up as an examination of the pharmaceutical industry and its impact quickly becomes a psychological thriller; at one point it seems it might venture a view as to the rights and wrongs of the relationship between corporations and the doctors who prescribe their drugs, or answer the question of who, from manufacturer to doctor to patient, is ultimately responsible for an individual’s reaction to a prescription drug. Instead it settles for leaving us to draw the conclusion: don’t take anything at face value.

The opening shot is a sweep of a cityscape which slowly closes in on a single residential window, and  as far as the plot is concerned the film concludes with a psychiatrist’s explanation.  They’re not the only similarities to Psycho. But in terms of its spirit Side Effects is closer to the film Hitchcock made directly before, North By Northwest: ambitious, wildly implausible – and undeniably entertaining.

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