by Miguel E. Rodriguez
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Cast: Jude Law, Rooney Mara, Catherine Zeta Jones, Channing Tatum
My Rating: 10/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 83% Certified Fresh
PLOT: A young woman’s world unravels when an anti-depressant prescribed by her psychiatrist has unexpected side effects.
Side Effects is a rare creature indeed: a movie released during the first two months of the calendar year that is not only good, it’s stunningly good. It’s too bad almost no one even remembers this movie exists.
Steven Soderbergh’s film tells the story of a young woman, Emily (Rooney Mara), who suffers from depression after her husband returns home from serving a prison term for insider trading. After a series of events where she apparently tries to harm herself, she sees a psychiatrist, Dr. Banks (Jude Law) who prescribes a brand new anti-depressant called Ablixa. While it is effective, it also comes with some side effects, including sleepwalking.
One day, Dr. Banks gets a call: Emily has stabbed someone to death, and she did it while sleepwalking, which was caused by the Ablixa. Banks interviews her; she remembers nothing of the incident. But now the doctor’s professional and personal life is in turmoil as well.
What we have here is a classic Hitchcockian story…actually, two stories for the price of one. You’ve got Emily, the wrong woman in the wrong place at the wrong time. She didn’t ask for any of this. She just wanted to feel better, be a better wife, be a better person. And the drugs were working: she was feeling better, doing better at work, doing better with her husband…but now, thanks to this drug and its unintended side effects, people think she’s crazy.
And you’ve got Dr. Banks, the wrong man also in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was doing his job, prescribing medication that he felt would help…and it WAS helping. But thanks to this unforeseeable tragedy, his practice dries up. Who wants to see a psychiatrist whose patient killed someone due to medicine he prescribed? This creates problems in his personal life: he just bought a new apartment, but now his income is severely diminished. He and his wife fight more than they used to. And so on.
…and that’s where I’ll leave it because, like all the best films, it’s better if you watch Side Effects cold, not knowing what to expect. No doubt there are people out there who saw the various twists and turns coming, but I am not one of them. I was utterly hoodwinked, and I loved it.
We are a culture of pills and quick fixes, the quicker the better. Side Effects is remarkably even-handed in presenting us with both sides of the worst-case scenario involving this culture. (Or I guess one of the worst-case scenarios, but I don’t want to get sidetracked.) Not only is this strategy effective in providing mental fodder while watching, but it’s also a great storytelling device. Whose side should we be on? Historically, “Big Pharma” has been one of the handiest movie villains since the Nazis. The public perception of mega-corporations with billions of dollars at their disposal, dollars that are used to cover up embarrassing media stories and pay off corporate whistle-blowers, is just too perfect not to use in movies. But Side Effects gives us the other side of that coin, the dedicated physicians and psychiatrists who are committed to helping people using the best available methods. If a pill can help people, who would blame a doctor for wanting to prescribe it? …unless the side effects turned out to be a little extreme?
That conundrum is at the heart of the movie. But on the surface, it’s just a fantastic mystery/thriller. Soderbergh directs with restraint, using very few camera moves. Everything we see is presented with a minimum of flash and maximum impact, so when you’re watching the third act of the movie, you can remember everything you saw in the first two acts with great clarity.
It’s a little bit like a Gene Kelly dance routine. You know he must have worked for hours to get those moves down, but when you see him in action, he barely looks like he’s working at all. That’s what Side Effects feels like. The film is telling a complicated story, but it doesn’t feel like it’s working hard. It’s just gliding along, showing you this scene, showing you that scene, ho-hum, pay attention now, all leading to the fantastic payoff at the end.
I don’t know if Side Effects is available to stream or not, but I heartily recommend it regardless.