Reputedly prolific American filmmaker Steven Soderbergh’s final big screen outing, 2013’s Side Effects – starring Rooney Mara, Jude Law and Catherine Zeta-Jones – is a compelling thriller exploring the blurred lines between psychopharmacology and the US justice system. Protagonist Emily Taylor’s (Mara) life is an endless cycle of misery and paranoia – each day she is faced with severe panic attacks, inducing chronic sweating, acute anxiety and nausea, travelling to work with tears streaming down her face and eyes red raw. Yet, with the release of her stockbroker husband Martin (Channing Tatum) from prison, her life appears to be taking a turn for the better.
Sadly, once Martin is returned to society after serving a sentence for insider trading, Emily’s debilitating condition only worsens. She is eventually put under the esteemed supervision of Dr. Jonathan Banks (Law), who prescribes a heady cocktail of just-on-the-market anti-depressants and psychotropic drugs to placate her condition. One fateful morning, however, Emily awakens to find Martin stabbed to death in their New York apartment, with the trail of blood leading straight back to her. She claims to remember nothing of the horrific events – but should we believe her?
This tale of medication, murder and deceit could well serve as a final flourish to Soderbergh’s impressive directorial career, switching from meditations on the illegal drugs trade (a la 2001’s Traffic) to the controversial use of psychopharmacology in the handling of those convicted of capital crimes. This is further embellished by an obvious riff on modern American society’s obsession with ‘pill-popping’, swallowing down various concoctions of uppers and downers each day without considering (or wishing to consider) the consequences. Billboards litter the sidewalk, with chirpy-faced models selling the promise of a happier you – if you submit to a new miracle drug able to whisk your problems away.
This, and further sub-textual nods, makes for a scathing attack on the global pharmaceutical industry, as well as contemporary attitudes towards medication – all of which are wrapped up in a compelling thriller that holds your attention from start to finish. Performance-wise, Law’s Banks is sympathetic throughout, built – in part – by touching scenes with his wife Kayla (Mamie Gummer) and stepson. The good doctor also tends diligently to Emily’s ailments, whilst being steadily drawn into a world of secrets and lies, sending him over the edge as he vigorously pursues the truth. Elsewhere, Zeta-Jones’ sultry performance as fellow psychologist, Dr. Victoria Siebert, puts us on edge from the very start, skulking in the shadows as a wily, sultry temptress, whilst Mara generates immense sympathy with her hollow eyes, drenched in tears and plagued by bouts of trembling.
Soderbergh’s (final?) examination is weakened only slightly by its mainstream approach to an incredibly sensitive and serious subject, which could – at times, perhaps – have been handled slightly more tastefully. Yet, for all its writ-large Hollywood clichés and generic tropes, Side Effects’ endless twists and turns, plus rapid pace, help build to a satisfying (if morally dubious) conclusion, and should send Soderbergh out on a triumphant high.
The 2013 Berlin Film Festival runs from 7-17 February. For more of our Berlinale coverage, simply follow this link.