At first, “Side Effects” looks like another jab at the pharmaceutical industry. Coping with her husband’s release from jail, Emily (Rooney Mara) finds herself sliding deep into depression. Following a public meltdown and a suicide attempt, she begins to receive treatment from Dr. Banks (Jude Law), who prescribes some medications, but to no avail. Dr. Banks contacts Emily’s former psychiatrist Dr. Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who suggests that she try a new antidepressant: Ablixa. The drug seems to work for Emily: she is happier and regains her sex drive, though she begins to sleepwalk. One day, while sleepwalking, she stabs her husband (Channing Tatum) to death and has no recollection of the event afterwards.
Before we continue, let’s take a look at those side effects of the fictional Ablixa, claimed to be in the class of SSRIs (along with Prozac and Zoloft). Stabbing? In fact, aggression usually decreases in depressed adults following treatment of SSRIs. Better sex? Ironically, decreased libido and sexual dysfunction are among the most distinctive side effects of SSRIs, frequently leading to termination of therapy. Sleepwalking? Again, there is no clinical evidence of that in SSRIs (there is some in another class of antidepressants, TCAs). Basically, all of these side effects are made up.
So the film’s realism is not worthy of much praise; in fact, some might find aspects of the plot questionable or far-fetched. Lack of realism however is forgivable in this film, as we are invited to further challenge the veracity of almost everything on screen. In addition to the usual suspect of the drug company (consistently representing “the bad guy” in theaters), we wonder if Dr. Banks is carelessly prescribing Ablixa for his own gains. We wonder if Dr. Siebert is setting out to harm Emily or Emily’s husband. We wonder if Dr. Banks and Dr. Siebert have been colluding in Emily’s fall. We wonder if Emily’s boss, a fellow patient of depression, has a role in whichever conspiracy theory we have in our heads. Some of us might even wonder if the self-medicating Dr. Banks is the real patient, or if he exists at all. There seems to be evidence for all of those explanations, none of which make complete sense.
This uncertainty is the true thrill of “Side Effects.” It does not give us a quick answer, preferring to taunt and tease for the most part. The suspense of a homicide or a cat-and-mouse race, in which we root for justice to prevail, gives way to multiple interpretations and ambiguous scenarios where good and bad people seem to switch places every fifteen minutes. We do not know which side justice stands on, or even if there is justice when everyone seems to have ulterior, sinister motives. The film invites us to investigate a case that really begins after its legal ending and has more than a few surprises waiting to be unfolded, like a Rubik’s cube that automatically twists just when you think you have a clue. Slow as our stint as detectives might be, it is quite a ride.
With hits such as “Magic Mike,” “Eric Brokovich,” “Traffic,” “Sex, Lies, and Videotape” and the Ocean’s Trilogy, director Steven Soderbergh has long been among the ranks of Spielberg and Scorsese as a big-shot director whose name cashes in as much as his actors. “Side Effects” is a further proof of his worth. Though still not at Alfred Hitchcock’s level, Soderbergh does share certain traits with the celebrated master. Both are prolific and fast on their feet: Hitchcock directed over 50 films in his luminous career and Soderbergh 27 features, both clocking in at more than one film per year. Both are versatile filmmakers: Hitchcock directed silent films, early talkies and both English and Hollywood productions, while Soderbergh jumps between blockbusters and independent projects with ease. Both are cinematic polymaths: Hitchcock’s visual and editing styles broke grounds, and Soderbergh has doubled or tripled himself as screenwriter, cinematographer and editor, the latter two under his pseudonyms. Both directors have enjoyed critical and commercial success: Hitchcock’s fame needs no further elaboration, and Soderbergh’s 12 wide releases earned more than $82 million on average and nods from the critics.
Manifest in “Side Effects” is one final similarity, perhaps more striking and precious than any above. Though not noted for his economy of dialogue, Soderbergh stays true to the Hitchcockian philosophy of telling a story with his camera. Many revealing details of the key incidents are conveyed or foreshadowed by deliberate, cunning shots or sequences: the zoom on a name card, the to-and-fro between Emily’s face and a handshake and a conspicuous tracking shot all complicate our understanding of what is going on. When depicting Emily’s depressive episodes, Soderbergh uses shallow focus and eerily high angles and frames to underscore the isolated, distorted nature of her mental state. In one memorable moment, she attends a ball with her husband and, as she leaves for a drink at the bar, she looks into an angled mirror and sees the illusion of her right face melting off. The metaphor of her altered mind is obvious, but its implications are not disclosed until the very end. Colored by Thomas Newman’s hushed, uncanny score, Soderbergh’s photography successfully visualizes the ambiguity of the story, making the film a mystery inside out.
A charming cast galvanizes that mystery. Rooney Mara is perfect for the role of Emily: her delicate, doll-like features lend to a sweet innocent veneer, which haunts us as soon as we realize that perhaps there is more trouble to her than depression. The jarring emotional hollowness of her character in a depressive state — even when she stabs her husband to death — unsettles us and lingers in our mind. Mara’s performance is effective, airtight and respectably devoid of any self-indulgence: she is there to make you wonder, and she does exactly that. Playing Emily’s current and former psychiatrists, Jude Law and Catherine Zeta-Jones form an unlikely pair, yet the experience of watching their characters’ protean and tumultuous relationship is quite stimulating. Channing Tatum has little time to play the pivotal victim, but the third-time collaborator with Soderbergh does a decent job as well.
Soderbergh insisted that he would depart from filmmaking after finishing up his final projects, including “Side Effects.” Be it a curtain call, a “sabbatical” (as he put it) or a much-needed break, it is possible that we will not see his name on credits for a while. In my recent memory, few directors have supplied moviegoers with works as consistently good and delightfully fast as his. I hope he will, as famed “ten-films-and-no-more” director Luc Besson (“The Fifth Element,” “The Professional”) did, “regain [his] appetite film by film.” Until he starts his next project, though, we are lucky to have “Side Effects” to enjoy.