With so many pharmaceuticals floating around the market, it almost seems like companies are inventing new ills just to invent new pills to treat them. As such, a movie like Side Effects, which wrestles with the darker side of medication, is a long time coming. With more and more people taking pills for relief, the potential dangers they pose to those around them due to those pills is an idea worth exploring. Surprisingly, the film evades making any kind of political statement for or against pharmaceuticals, opting instead to weave a tale about psychological suspense, but is still satisfying through and through.
Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) suffers from anxiety related to her husband (Channing Tatum) recently being released from prison and readjusting to life as a couple again after four years apart. A short time after her husband’s return, Emily drives her car into a wall in an apparent suicide attempt. This draws the attention of Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) who takes Emily on as a patient. To properly treat her, Jonathan confers with Emily’s previous doctor, Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who advises Jonathan to treat Emily with a new pharmaceutical. Unfortunately, Emily responds erratically to the treatment, which causes her to sleepwalk. It’s during one of these episodes that she kills her husband. Now Jonathan’s life comes under scrutiny as he holds a portion of the responsibility for having prescribed the drug in the first place, but as he learns more about his patient he discovers that she might not be as sick as she made herself out to be.
Side Effects presents an interesting moral dilemma regarding how much responsibility a person takes when they do something horrible while under the influence of a legal, prescribed drug. And if the individual is not responsible, then is the doctor who writes the prescription? Is the drug manufacturer? In an alternate universe, Side Effects could have been an engrossing story featuring a courtroom Mexican standoff between these three parties all trying to avoid jail time. Instead, audiences get a less engrossing, but equally entertaining suspenseful crime-thriller, which is more in line with some of director Steven Soderbergh’s previous work, like the Ocean’s movies where audiences get to see “what really happened”. It’s a fine choice, and one that won’t leave viewers dissatisfied, but it does feel like a missed opportunity to contribute to a larger conversation.
For the story being told here, Side Effects delivers a solid package throughout, ranging from the players to the plot to the presentation. The cast, for the most part, seems especially well-suited to their roles. Law is wonderfully sympathetic as a doctor who still genuinely cares, while Zeta-Jones is the polar opposite as someone cold and unapproachable, numb after too many years of listening to other people’s problems. Mara flexes her acting chops once again with an excellent portrayal of a desperately ill young woman who is quickly losing control over her life. Tatum, unfortunately, feels out of joint in an otherwise outstanding cast. He is perhaps too beefy or macho or urban to pull off the role of a white collar criminal.
The plot is also very engaging, switching focus from Emily’s mental illness and possible crime to Jonathan’s possibly faulty judgment and failing practice. The longer he treats Emily, however, the more suspicious he becomes of her situation, which leads him to investigate her entire story. It’s interesting to watch Jonathan piece together the truth while forces work against him, destroying his life one piece at a time, but unfortunately, the stakes are never raised to the point of desperation for Jonathan. Or if they are, then that desperation is never adequately conveyed to the audience. He always seems to be in control and have a plan. It’s suspenseful, but not necessarily thrilling.
Finally, Side Effects is presented with a pleasant visual appeal, taking advantage of smart shots to convey broader or specific messages for audiences to infer. Consider a wide angle of a cityscape that zooms in on an individual apartment window, or the fray in the blanket Emily fingers while discussing her mental stability. These deliberate choices are meaningful, but in an approachable way, adding a nice texture to the entire production.
Beyond its fleeting, albeit high, entertainment value, Side Effects will probably not be remembered long after audiences leave the theater. It doesn’t make any grandiose statements or present a one-of-a-kind plot that will shock audiences. And while there’s very little to criticize in the performances, none of them will wow audiences either. Typically, none of these observations would be noteworthy, but Side Effects is also allegedly Soderbergh’s final theatrical feature. For fans of his work who will surely miss him, it’s a shame he couldn’t be sent off in grander fashion.