Film Review | Side Effects

Steven Sodenbergh’s swansong is a Hitchcockian thriller that will bend your mind and potentially leave you down in the dumps, but that’s all the more compelling for it.

Don’t you know that I’m toxic? Rooney Mara and Channing Tatum play a couple whose life is thrown into disarray by an experimental psychiatric drug.
Don’t you know that I’m toxic? Rooney Mara and Channing Tatum play a couple whose life is thrown into disarray by an experimental psychiatric drug.

A mind is a terrible thing to waste. Chameleon director Steven Sodenbergh (Sex, Lies and Videotape, Ocean's Eleven, 12 and 13, Erin Brockovich) certainly appears to agree: because with his fiendish psychological thriller Side Effects, he has taken full advantage of the way the human brain can bend reality and manipulate other human beings to a frightening - even fatal - degree.

The prolific and genre-hopping director has declared this to be his final feature film - the (homo)erotic biopic on magician Liberace, Behind the Candelabra, is yet to be released but entered production before Side Effects - and if it's somewhat enclosed in its generic make-up (bearing a number of quirks and ticks that are trademarks of a particularly illustrious strand of the thriller), it's an apt swan song for a director who has always shown an efficient and assured grasp over his material, whatever it turns out to be.

That he'll be plunging us into a dark, morally murky world this time around becomes clear from the word go. The psychologically fragile Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) eagerly awaits the release of her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) from prison - he's been locked up for four years, having been accused of insider trading.

Happy that her husband is back in her life and eager to rebuild their future, Emily nonetheless appears to cave under the weight of her mental problems - making an impulse-decision to drive her car into a parking lot wall soon after Martin's release.

Surviving the impact but charted off to a mental hospital, she convinces the resident psychiatrist Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) to release her so that she may spend time with her husband and return to her daily routine, on condition that she visits him for regular therapy sessions.

Meanwhile, as her progress appears to be staggered, Jonathan hears from a colleague, Emily's previous psychiatrist Victoria (Catherine Zeta-Jones), that a new drug - Ablixa - has appeared on the scene, and that it may just be the miracle cure that Emily needs.

Agreeing to take on the experimental medication, Emily and Jonathan discover it to be highly effective.

But when an unexpected incident spirals both Emily and Jonathan's lives out of balance, a dark and intricate pattern begins to unfold behind the drug, and everything that surrounds it.

It might be something or a cliché, or a too-easy critical short hand, to refer to Side Effects as 'Hitchcockian'.

But every frame of Sodenbergh's film drips with the psychological unease that pervades so much (all?) of the Master of Suspense's key works.

Any mystery narrative thrives or falls based on how well it distributes narrative gaps: to keep us guessing, you need to leave things out in all the right places. That, of course, requires confidence - a firm hand to steer the ship through choppy waters. Luckily, Sodenbergh - who's as comfortable with jaunty crime capers as he is with historical biopics and Hollywood satire - is very much the man for the job.

An auteur who is mercifully free of the overbearing stylistic tics of, say, previous Rooney Mara collaborator and neo-noir-thriller-trailblazer David Fincher (Se7en, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo remake), he presents everything with a stark wash that works in tandem well with the plot's pharmaceutical backdrop.

It could be that Sodenbergh has created his own sub-genre: the 'PharmaNoir'. In fact, Side Effects is most interesting when it's toeing the line between meaty genre entertainment and a deeper, more disturbing satirical drive.

If the classic noir story pits a protagonist against a baffling, and often shadily malign, system - Jude Law's Jonathan is forced to assume that genre's standard 'detective' mould as the plot thickens substantially - here the big bad structure is 'big pharma', with Albixa as its evil, hubristic salvo.

But it's yet another testament to Sodenberg's snaky virtuosity that this is only half of the story (the fact that it's almost surgically half is another).

To say much more would be to spoil the film irrevocably (for the shift isn't only signalled by plot development but by a shift in mood and pace), suffice it to say that, as it unfolds, Side Effects turns out to be a far more than just a well-intentioned but predictable critique of the pharmaceutical industry and the overzealous psychiatrists who enable it.

But Sodenbergh, though he even heroically manages to keep the more sensational elements of the plot tonally consistent throughout, isn't the only hero here: his cast lend a real helping hand to keep things chugging devilishly along.

Jude Law is at his best when playing bad guys, and though he isn't technically a villain here, when murky facts about his past emerge, shading him into something of a suspicious character, his mix of charisma and desperation keeps you watching.

Zeta-Jones perhaps gets the worst rap of all (save for perhaps Tatum, by virtue of skint on-screen time) - her femme fatale role is the most one-dimensional, though the Welsh diva pulls it off with requisite aplomb.

But it's Mara who's the star here. Built like an Vogue model but packing a seductive on-screen presence that's 'siren-like' in the original (read: dangerous) sense of the word, her whispery performance is by turns fragile, and potentially fatal.

You might end up needing some kind of happy-making infusion after this diabolical film unspools its every intricate, cruel strand over your eyeballs.

But as far as travels into the darkest recesses of the psyche go, you won't find better poison on the market. 

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