When Steven Soderbergh makes an issue movie, it can be many things. Subtle is not one of them. So it is with Side Effects, his indictment of psychopharmacological culture. Beautifully shot and edited (by Soderbergh himself under his usual aliases), it marks his third collaboration with screenwriter Scott Z. Burns. The first, The Informant!, played as a madcap comedy; the second, Contagion, was a disaster film; and now we have a tense, psychological thriller.
Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) is depressed, and why wouldn’t she be? Her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) was sent to prison for insider trading, forcing her to move out of Greenwich. He’s out now, though, and she seems worse than ever, even to the point of suicide.
Luckily, she meets Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), an eager, compassionate psychiatrist who speaks in friendly, marketing patter — SSRIs “turn off the part of the brain telling you that you’re sad”; beta-blockers “make it easier to be the person you already are”. He helps her with a prescription for Zoloft and a regular appointment. He soon finds that her depression is not new: before she lost her old health insurance and moved back into the city she used to see Dr. Erica Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones). A quick consultation turns up a mention of a new SSRI: Ablixa.
Underneath all the slickly-produced commercials and posters, Ablixa comes with a raft of possible side effects. The pharmacist rattles off a list when Emily fills her prescription, but one that isn’t mentioned is sleepwalking. Sure enough, a few days later she’s up in the middle of the night, blaring music and sloppily laying out a meal. Despite a cocktail of drugs to curtail Ablixa’s side effects, the episodes continue, and eventually Emily does something very serious indeed.
And here the film hits its inflection point. It seems that if Emily is not responsible for her behavior, Dr. Banks may well be. A public backlash would be devastating to his career, and could ruin his relationship with his wife (Vinessa Shaw). But obviously he doesn’t want to throw this poor girl under the bus, so he begins to dig, and what he turns up is deliciously surprising.
Mara is truly gifted at portraying a wide variety of unconventional affects, which she last used to great effect in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Soderbergh makes the most of this with his cinematography, shooting the depressed Emily, for example, with razor-thin depths of field for Mara to walk through, trying to balance in a narrow window of clarity.
But the real genius here is Burns’ script, twisting back on itself until it can be difficult to track just who’s playing whom, and for what. As a statement about the pharmaceutical industry and the surrounding culture, I can take or leave it. As a puzzle-box thriller, though, it’s among the best.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass.