Tentatively put, a psychological thriller with director Steven Soderbergh’s signature plot twists, Side Effects seems to switches genres as often as Soderbergh pulls in tight into Jude Law, who plays Emily’s (Rooney Mara) psychiatrist. Little more than mid-way through, the film switches protagonists as the ugly head of the—if you will—pharmaceutical-industrial complex is reared and examined. The film turns from an intimate, heartstring-pulling drama about depression to a story of a doctor who decided to stray a little and become ambitious at the wrong time – which is to say, at the wrong patient.
The starting and ending sequences consists of zooming into and out of the sheer monotonous and monolithic expanse of the walls of what seems a mental hospital, a clue Soderbergh drops right from the beginning. Tight and numerous shots of bare limbs and slow panning stretch out scenes almost too uncomfortably and for a moment the film takes on the aesthetics of a documentary that is too sober and indeed self-conscious.
The film is bolstered by a strong performance from a stellar ensemble. Catherine Zeta-Jones, who plays Emily’s previous psychiatrist, with hair fastidiously parted in the middle and sporting a rather severe pallor in her face, becomes a conniving doctor who is Emily’s previous psychiatrist and more violently ambitious than her colleague.
Elements of Soderbergh’s previous effort Contagion readily come to mind as the film progresses. As he did in Contagion, he lets his latest film breath and its message dissolve slowly in the brain. It is a blatant examination of America’s over-dependence on medication and the big multinationals which flood it into stores and have recruited doctors to prescribe them. So much is said of the swiftness with which doctors hand out prescriptions. Never mind the side effects, even if they included suicidal tendencies…
But has with Contagion, the plot twists quickly reach breaking point and the view has to help their suspension of disbelief from being suspended. Overall, Side Effects is more than a solid project with a contemporary and expository, if slightly predictable, story that tangles up our feelings about heroes and asks pertinent questions about the inexorable trend line of capitalism and unchecked consumerism.