Advertisements for anti-depression or anti-anxiety medications are all over television, and when the announcer rattles off the two-dozen or so horrific-sounding side effects, you can’t help but think about taking your chances and sticking with the depression. “Side Effects” explores the dangers of these drugs — and they go beyond the warnings on the label.
“Contagion” writer/director duo Scott Z. Burns and Steven Soderbergh re-team for this pharmaceutical thriller, which is much less procedural than “Contagion” and more of a typical, familiar conspiracy film with ample twists and a plot laden with intrigue.
Rooney Mara stars as Emily Taylor, a 28-year-old married woman whose husband (Channing Tatum) has just been released from prison after being convicted of insider trading. Emily has a history of depression and even with the pieces of her life coming back into place, she has trouble coping. After attempting to take her own life, she enters the care of psychiatrist Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), who attempts to fit her with the right drug, but the side effects end up having a disastrous effect on her.
“Side Effects” begins almost as a horror film with how freaky Emily’s behavior gets and the strange things she does while taking these drugs, but as the questions come flooding in, it mutates into a full-fledged mystery. Not much more should be said, but fans of traditional thrillers and mystery films will likely not be disappointed.
Much of the expert pacing that made “Contagion” a strong film works even better in “Side Effects.” Soderbergh is so good at adding the slightest touches to enhance the tension and the tone of a scene that he brings out the best in Burns’ script, which has plenty to chew on and doesn’t lack for surprises. Given the nature of the genre, you know that something’s not quite right, but the script is so smartly designed that even when there’s a big reveal, part of the truth is still concealed, usually in that the characters are a step ahead of the audience.
Most of Soderbergh’s recent films have gone overboard on big-name casting, but “Side Effects” only uses a few of the stars that have worked with him before: Tatum, Law and Catherine Zeta-Jones, who plays Emily’s former psychiatrist. In a way, “Contagion” and last year’s “Haywire” were hurt by an inflation of stars playing minor roles because it raised the expectations for those films considerably.
“Side Effects” relies chiefly on the talents of Mara, who is still a fresh face even after “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” She sells the part of Emily beautifully to be sure. If Soderbergh doesn’t fully retire, you can bet he’ll look to cast her again in the future.
Law’s character features prominently in the film as well, particularly in the second hour. He hasn’t done much great work lately but he gets to play a terrifically written character in Banks, who starts the film in a supporting role and then is suddenly thrust into having a share of the lead. Banks develops throughout the film in a way few movie characters ever do, period.
But strong characters and performances are just a bonus, as the success of “Side Effects” comes primarily from the thickness of the plot and the mystery, which at the onset appears so open-ended that not even a supernatural explanation can be ruled out.
Soderbergh assures that each viewer will keep on guessing with the way he guides the story. He finds the poetic, artistic potential in even the most straightforward or mundane scenes. Screenwriters who specialize in these kinds of typical genre entries would kill to be able to recruit Soderbergh to direct their films. He’s definitely capable of making greater movies than “Side Effects,” but when a real professional takes on something simple, great things can happen.
“Side Effects” doesn’t change that game as far as multi-layered thrillers, but credit to Burns for spawning such a complex story out of the simple concept of the inherent risk presented by today’s medications.
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Written by Scott Z. Burns
Starring: Rooney Mara, Jude Law, Channing Tatum, Catherine Zeta-Jones