Side Effects

Side Effects

Steven Soderbergh and his regular collaborating partner Scott Z. Burns continue to explore modern America in crisis, caught between financial turmoil and health related scares. Side Effects, like the duo’s Contagion from a couple of years ago, is not just an effective thriller put together from the mundane, everyday elements of life but also a remarkable character study of people in desperate situations.

As serious as it is precise, the events in the film unfold with the usual sterile, detached quality that have become the director’s trademark, except, here he displays the polished side of his craft in the way he navigates through the labyrinthine, exacting setups and situations.  Never one to conform or settle for convention, Side Effects begins by being about the bouts of depression faced by Rooney Mara’s Emily, who seems grateful and relieved at her husband Martin’s release after four years in prison for insider trading and financial fraud, only to purposely crash her car in the parking lot during a suicidal urge. She starts seeing a psychologist, Dr. Jonathan Banks (sneaky Jude Law) who, in his desire to conduct a pharmaceutical company sponsored trial of some experimental anti-depressants, enlists her as a test subject. At first the drugs seem to work, with Emily exhibiting positive behaviour and more self control, but then start the titular side effects and her life spirals from one chaotic situation to another while the plot itself transforms into something not only more frightening but also personal, both for Dr. Banks and Emily.

A big contributor to Side Effect’s effectiveness is Soderbergh himself. He makes the implausible seem credible with meticulous, confident camera work and storytelling. The film reveals details about people in everyday conversations—Emily had a miscarriage, Banks had a past brush with medical malpractice, Martin (Channing Tatum) used to belong to the upper echelon of society till ambition and greed got the better of him—but this and a barrage of other information flows seamless between dialogues and revelatory scenes that move the story forward at breakneck pace without ever feeling rushed. There are also sly jabs at society and their reliance on prescription drugs to make them feel or function better, none more telling than a moment when Banks gives his wife a pill to calm her down before an important work interview proclaiming that these days “everyone” else is taking these. In this way Soderberg’s sharp, anti-corporation viewpoint, seen earlier in both the Scott Burns scripted Informant and Contagion are given yet another platform to air. As good as the film is in the capable hands of its makers, it is elevated by stirring performances, none more deserving of praise than Mara who is incredible in displaying a range of emotions from suspicion to self doubt to suicidal.

Side Effects is a reminder that good, mature films have a sobering quality to them, too often lost or forgotten about when these films must compete for screens and viewer attention against cartoonish, special effects heavy, action drivel that have been corrupting the screens for the better part of this year. Soderbergh as a director hasn’t been this good in years and for those who appreciate ability and technique over style will find that it is our collective loss that this is purported to be his last film. As a goodbye performance however, it should emerge in time as one of the highlights of his career, long spent differentiating himself from the flock with experimentations in form, narrative and technique.

Rating: ★★★★½

About Faizan Rashid

A veteran Dubai based film critic, Faizan has been reviewing movies for nearly a decade. His work has been published in local newspapers such as 7days and on prestigious online websites such as MSN Arabia and