Film Review: ‘Side Effects’

Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh’s ongoing retirement from feature filmmaking has become something of a running industry joke in recent years, with his departure from Hollywood planned (four projects in advance) back in 2011, prior to the release of virus thriller Contagion. Since then, Soderbergh has garnered praise from audiences and critics alike for his glossy action flick Haywire (2011) and the Channing Tatum-led male stripper drama Magic Mike (2012). However, with his much vaunted ‘final film’ Side Effects (2013), Soderbergh has easily eclipsed both, offering up one of his best works since 2000’s Traffic.

A tricksy, contemporary tale of sex, lies and pharmaceuticals, the film begins with young married couple Emily (Rooney Mara) and Martin (Tatum) reunited after Martin completes a four-year prison stretch for insider trading. Shortly after, Emily has a sudden relapse into clinical depression and, following a bizarre car accident, is referred to British psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Banks (a resurgent Jude Law). With his patient’s welfare apparently his priority, Banks places Emily on a course of the newly released drug, Ablixa. However, following a tragic incident at Emily and Martin’s home, Banks begins to question both his own judgement and the veracity of his erratic dependent’s testimony.

Stylish, sexually charged and suitably satirical, Soderbergh has – if Side Effects is to be his last big-screen outing – gone out on an entrancing, encapsulating high. From Law’s impressive central performance as the morally opaque Banks, through to Soderbergh’s crisp digital cinematography, his swansong never feels like anything less than a contemporary thriller par excellence. With both the profit-driven pharmaceutical industry and western society’s ‘claim culture’ firmly in their sights, Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns weave together a taut and tense narrative, whilst Mara, Law, Tatum and Catherine Zeta-Jones (as rival psychiatrist Dr. Victoria Siebert) all excel in their respective roles.

Sympathies with lead characters are ritually built, then demolished throughout Side Effects, with almost every single individual featured partially guilty – in some way or another – for the heinous crime committed a third of the way through the story. Mara’s sobbing and stricken Emily reveals hitherto hidden layers of duplicitous guile, whilst Law’s charismatic, clean-cut doctor wastes little time in desecrating the Hippocratic oath once accused of misdemeanours he’s unable (or unwilling) to admit to. In addition, Zeta-Jones is perfectly cast as the self-assured, snarling Siebert, concealing her own pivotal role in Emily’s unpredictable past/present transgressions.

Though the film wobbles noticeably towards its climax, as Burns frantically tries to tie up loose ends (whilst at the same time unknotting a few others), Soderbergh still admirably manages to reign his dizzying thriller in, treading that fine line between satisfying objectivity and abstract subjectivity. With regular collaborators on board and on-form to bid a fond farewell, bolstered further by an eye-catchingly unhinged turn from Mara, Side Effects may well go down as that great, ultimate Soderbergh film we were all crossing our fingers for.

Daniel Green