Side Effects

Posted on: 15th March 2013  |

Director: Steven Soderbergh
Starring: Rooney Mara, Channing Tatum, Jude Law
UK Release date: 8 March 2013
Certificate: 15 (106 mins)

Director Steven Soderbergh has announced that Side Effects will be his last feature film. Having reached the age of 50, he wants to retire from filmmaking to concentrate on other interests, including painting. If it really is his final film, it is not a bad end to a hugely successful career.

Emily (Rooney Mara) is a 28-year-old woman who has waited four years for her husband, Martin (Channing Tatum), to be released from prison after being convicted for insider trading. On his release, Martin attempts to recapture their former, idyllic life together but it would seem that something has changed between them; they cannot go back. Having used antidepressants for some time, Emily makes an unsuccessful suicide attempt and is referred to psychiatrist, Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), who prescribes a catalogue of mood-enhancing drugs but with little or no effect. In his attempts to salvage his patient from her fragile state, Banks consults her former doctor, Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones) who glibly recommends that Banks put Emily on the new ‘wonder drug’, Ablixa. The treatment appears to produce miraculous results, but comes with some rather nasty side effects: Emily’s experience of reality is radically altered and the drug-induced sleepwalking episodes cause her to commit a thoroughly unexpected murder. The ensuing legal trial addresses Emily’s sanity as well as the question of how much responsibility should lie with those who produce treatments and those who prescribe them. The fallout from the trial ruins Banks’ life. This sequence of events sets the scene for Banks’ attempt to clear his name and find out the truth behind the killing. Is the medication and treatment really to blame, or does the responsibility lie elsewhere?

This film is surprisingly murky and disconcerting, all the more so because you wouldn’t necessarily know from the way the story is told that the main character is, in fact, greed. Instead, Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns allow it to remain almost hidden, a malevolent force driving the story from its drowsy and lumbering start to its manic and vengeful final sequence. Indications are given early on when we learn that Martin’s illegal methods of improving his bank balance are used to pay for a beautiful house and all the luxuries he so lavishly bestows upon Emily. His time in prison spells the loss of this picture perfect life, and so Emily’s grief for the loss of her lifestyle as well as her husband festers, manifesting itself in her depression. This scenario is held up like a mirror to the burgeoning greed of Banks who takes on more and more clients, more and more stress, and a $50,000-per-year contract with the makers of Ablixa to pay for his swanky new apartment in downtown Manhattan. All the while, large pharmaceutical companies are getting rich off the profits. Greed is ubiquitous.

Despite all this, your focus remains on the interplay between Banks and Emily, and the contrast in the progression of their characters. Banks transmutes from quiet, respectable psychiatrist and family man into an obsessive and vengeful figure. Law portrays this subtly and impresses as he goes up through the acting gears over the course of the film. However, he needs an equally impressive foil to balance the performance, and he finds it in Mara’s at once frail and threatening presence. She flickers from a nasal, languid and pitiful depressive to a self-confident menace with a roll of her eyes. Mara drapes herself across every scene and as Banks seems to lose his mind, so Emily seems to gain hers. It is these exchanges and Soderbergh’s refusal to condemn any of his characters which disguise the malign presence of greed in the film.

The pervasive use of prescription drugs reminds us of how they enable us to mask and dampen the worst parts of our reality but ultimately leave the root causes unchallenged and unchanged. And so it is with Side Effects: Soderbergh presents greed as the root evil and motivation of all the main characters, but masks this from us with their elaborate lies. Ultimately, it is evil that is left unchallenged and unchanged.

Adam Berry

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'Side Effects' Trailer


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