This film is going to be one that’s a bit difficult to discuss. While I enjoyed the movie quite a bit there were a few issues I had with it and most of those issues are ones I can’t really talk about without getting into plot dynamics. With that said, I’m going to do my best to talk around these issues without spoiling anything, but if you want to go into this one without even broad strokes knowledge of plot developments now is your opportunity to leave.
Still here? Good. So Side Effects is purportedly Steven Soderbergh’s (Ocean’s Eleven, Contagion) final film before he retires (although, he does have a TV-movie coming out later this month on HBO). It tells the story of Emily Taylor, a woman who is struggling with chronic depression and suicidal tendencies in the aftermath of her husband being released from prison after facing charges for insider trading. After surviving a suicide attempt she begins receiving treatment from psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Banks. Banks attempts to treat her with a number of different medications, but when none of them prove effective at helping her depression Banks consults with Emily’s former psychiatrist who recommends a new commercial drug called Ablixa. The improvements are almost instantaneous; Emily’s disposition improves, as does her relationship with her husband, but a dangerous side effect of the drug threatens to upend the lives of both Emily and her doctor.
This film has an interesting quality that I haven’t quite decided is a positive or negative thing yet. It almost feels as if it’s two movies that were mashed together using a similar theme, and there’s a distinct change in narrative style that takes place partway through the film. The first half is decidedly different than I was expecting: a slow burning drama dealing with depression and how we tend to overuse medication as a quick-fix solution to deeper problems. This section, as I said, moves more slowly than your average moviegoer will have the patience for (I noticed at least one person in my screening walk out of the theater), but if you’re willing to engage with the film it’s never dull. The second half, though, changes gears and becomes exactly the type of fast-paced paranoid thriller you would expect, to the point of perhaps being a bit too obvious at times. Despite this shift, I found both parts to be quite enjoyable, even if it was for different reasons.
Part of what helps make this work is a steady directorial hand from Steven Soderbergh. Despite the somewhat abrupt change in the narrative direction and pacing, Soderbergh manages to maintain a consistent tone. It feels like a natural development of the story rather than a jarring intrusion, and even as the plot twists escalate and compound on one another it still manages to take the audience along for the ride. The whole film is shot beautifully with some interesting visual choices that help bring you psychologically into the state of mind of these characters.
The cast all does great work here, and as their characters change and develop over the course of the story amid lies and deceit, the performances remain consistent. You buy for every moment their motivations, even when those motivations may change. Rooney Mara is great as Emily Taylor, and during the beginning of the film she effectively draws you into the “poisonous fog” she feels, and establishes a great deal of sympathy between her and the audience. However, the film, for all intents and purposes, is Jude Law’s, and he does a wonderful job as Dr. Jonathan Banks. He’s someone who is earnest in his desire to help his patients and provide for his family, but has to traverse the ethically shady world of pharmaceutical reps and commercial drugs in order to do that.
I tend to enjoy thrillers like the one this becomes in its second half, but I must admit that as much as I enjoyed the latter part of this film the first half is probably the stronger section. It’s a slow burn, as I said, but it’s really effective storytelling and takes a compelling look at an intriguing subject matter. It’s atypical in the best possible way. If the rest of the film had that kind of narrative tightness this could be a capital G great film. However, the somewhat predictable movie-ness of the second half hampers it a bit. Don’t get me wrong, I like movie-ness; I love the ability of film to tell fantastical stories that can’t exist in the real world, but sometimes a story calls for something more grounded. Sometimes a film needs to operate using real logic rather than movie logic. While I still enjoyed this film quite a lot, it ends up being just a fun movie when it had the potential to perhaps be a great film.
Despite that, I would recommend the film. It’s a fun, well acted, well directed film with a compelling narrative. It’s also possibly the last film we’ll get from the great Steven Soderbergh, and it’s worth seeing for that reason alone.