It’s fitting that Side Effects’ opening sequence – an extreme longshot of a New York apartment block that steadily zooms in on the bloodied contents of a single room – is drenched in director Steven Soderbergh’s unique style. Side Effects is the last film from the eclectic director who brought us Traffic, Erin Brockovich and Magic Mike, as he retires from the industry this year for pursuits in theatre, television and art. Cinema-goers have waited with bated breath for Soderbergh to go out with a bang.
Rewind three months from the film’s taut opener and Side Effect’s first act plays out like the perfect partner to Soderbergh’s 2011 medical thriller Contagion, taking the familiar and commonplace – this time in the world of medication – to extremes. Martin Taylor (Channing Tatum) is released from prison, after serving time for Insider Trading, to find his wife, Emily (Rooney Mara), defenceless under the stranglehold of depression. Prescribed a new medication, Ablixa, Emily’s world tears apart as the drug’s potent side effects take over.
Powerfully set up for an attack on big pharmaceutical corporations, Side Effects swerves this fertile angle, instead becoming a character driven quest that sees psychiatrist Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) take centre stage. There’s more than a hint of retro in Side Effects’ style, reminiscent of classic thrillers with its sultry femme fatale (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and corkscrew plot.
Side Effects’ early U-turn is a bold and rather confusing move but twists and turns are the life blood of this modern thriller. Littered with holes and cheap plot developments – that include that predictable yet crucial piece of internet research – Side Effects’ pace and gripping performances make it irresistible viewing nonetheless. As established characters are instantaneously torn apart and rebuilt anew it’s easy to feel a tad manipulated but, with a cast this unflinching, it’s hard to feel dissatisfied. Only Zeta-Jones falters in a performance that staggers uneasily towards typecast.
It’s disappointing that Side Effects is to be Soderbergh’s last big screen movie, not simply because his diverse and acclaimed filmography hints at so much future promise, but because Side Effects doesn’t quite feel like his best film. In its finest moments, Side Effects wades into the murky waters of mental illness and the hidden darkness within us all. The settings burst with clinical modernism and this final film has Soderbergh’s sharp visual prints all over it, including an impressively captured sequence of violence. Yet, to its detriment, Soderbergh’s last effort too often relies on cheap twists and lazy flashbacks. Fast, seductive and irresistible, none of this matters in the moment, but on reflection has the power to make viewers feel a little cheated.
VERDICT: ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭ ✩ 4/5
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