Side Effects (2013) Film. Director: Steven Soderbergh


Philip French

The Observer, Sunday 10 March 2013

Steven Soderbergh, who celebrated his 50th birthday two months ago, recently announced his retirement from the cinema in order to devote himself to painting. One would be surprised if he actually stuck to this resolution, but if he does he’d be giving up one of the most extraordinary cinematic careers anyone has ever had, and leave behind a remarkable body of work that few American film-makers could match.

Since winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1989 with his first movie, the low-budget independent production sex, lies and videotape, he has directed a film virtually every year in a variety of genres and styles, as well as producing some of the most original and adventurous films to come out of Hollywood these past 25 years.

Soderbergh’s pictures as director range from the openly commercial Ocean’s Eleven to the experimental Schizopolis; from a two-partbiography of Che Guevara and a remake of Tarkovsky’s sci-fi classic Solaris to the best adaptation of an Elmore Leonard thrillerOut of Sight, and the true-life social conscience drama Erin Brockovichin which Julia Roberts won an Oscar. As producer his films include I’m Not There (Todd Haynes’s bold fantasia on the life of Bob Dylan) and Lynne Ramsay‘s We Need to Talk About Kevin. Soderbergh has also been the cinematographer (credited as Peter Andrews) and the editor (credited as Mary Ann Bernard) on most of his movies, including the latest, Side Effects.

Along with the variety of styles and subject has gone a consistency of themes and preoccupations, three of which he announced in that first film, sex, lies and videotape: eroticism, mendacity and a fascination with technique. Although Side Effects has an original screenplay by Scott Z Burns (scriptwriter on Soderbergh’s disaster movie Contagion and his whistleblower business film The Informant!), one can see why the director might have chosen this as a valedictory work. It brings together in synoptic form much of what he’s been doing for a quarter of a century.

Side Effects opens with a tracking shot along the floor of an austere New York apartment, following what has always grabbed our attention in the movies, especially since the coming of colour – a trail of blood. This implies a wound, a weapon, a body, a possible death, but whose?

The revelation, like much else in this cleverly constructed film, is postponed by the appearance of a title stating “Three months earlier”. Here we meet a young, attractive, middle-class couple, Emily (Rooney Mara) and Martin (Channing Tatum). She’s visiting him in jail where he’s completing a four-year sentence for insider trading on Wall Street, and they’re soon to embark on a new, redemptive life after losing their considerable fortune through greed and corporate crime.


Link to video: Side Effects: watch the trailer for Steven Soderbergh’s new filmTheir renewed marriage is in trouble; Emily is clinically depressed, and an attempted suicide brings her into the care of a British psychiatrist, Dr Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), with a private practice and a job at a Manhattan hospital. He’s a caring, prescribing person, who happily puts his own wife on beta-blockers in preparation for an important business meeting. Pretty soon everybody in the vicinity seems to be deep in the valley of the dolls, taking uppers and downers, pills to stay awake and get to sleep.

Big pharma is all around, competing in a tough, highly lucrative market where greed abounds for the manufacturers who make the stuff and for the doctors who sit on advisory panels and then sign prescriptions for it. Dr Banks has apparently left Britain because Americans have a healthier attitude towards metal illness, but we also infer he’d like to get rich like everyone else around him. There are, however, side effects for the patients, and Emily is the centre of attention for the mood shifts and loss of perspective that is the downside of the treatment. We’re lured into a fascination with the world of corporate irresponsibility that Erin Brockovich dealt with. A whole society is engaged in keeping anxiety, doubt and chaos at bay, and Dr Banks finds an ally in the beautiful Dr Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a psychiatrist who treated Emily in her more prosperous times in fashionable Greenwich, Connecticut.

This engrossing moral drama suddenly takes another turn as we catch up with that introductory trail of blood on the apartment floor. The movie morphs into a psychiatric thriller of the sort Hitchcock helped launch withSpellbound in the mid-1940s and that led to a cycle of pictures about good and evil shrinks and their association with the criminal justice system. Gradually everything the viewer takes on board is wrongly labelled and travelling under a false passport, and Dr Banks finds himself less the physician than the patient, a Hitchcockian figure in a familiar transference-of-guilt situation. Instead of being a sympathetic medical investigator he has to become a ruthless real-life detective as his professional reputation is brought into question and malevolent forces threaten to destroy his world.

To say anything more specific or to convey more than the references to Hitchcock hint at would be to take away from the authentic surprises and the properly disturbing revelations that Side Effects has to offer. It isn’t a film of any great depth, and the narrative deceptions inevitably involve a degree of contrivance. But Soderbergh handles his actors with great deftness and gives the film an air of intelligence and social authority. Throughout he uses his proven skills as cinematographer and editor to draw us into a story that plays subtle tricks with our moral allegiances. 

Peter Bradshaw

The Guardian, Thursday 7 March 2013

Did Steven Soderbergh just finish on his masterpiece? Or are these reports of his retirement just a ploy on the director’s part to get a little respect and make us appreciate him in a way we haven’t in a good long while? If so, it could well be working. I am willing to go to the golf course right now, get down on my bended knees on the green, and pretty much beg Mr Soderbergh to put down his clubs, smash his putter, throw his niblick into the pond, forget this retirement nonsense and return to making films posthaste.

Because Side Effects is brilliant: a noir psychological thriller – like a 21st-century Marnie, or Rosemary’s Baby – that is also an acid satire on big pharma, the mental healthprofession and its terrifyingly powerful, priestly caste of doctors. There is a compelling lead performance from Rooney Mara who lays down the law with her presence. She demonstrates a potent Hitchcockian combination: an ability to be scared and scary at the same time, and Soderbergh’s film manages to introduce its effects in some insidious, almost intravenous way. Fear and fascination swam through my skull simply watching it. And the later scenes involving sex, lies and videotape will be especially involving for those on the lookout for recurrent authorial motifs.

Scott Z Burns’s smart script is elevated into something else in Soderbergh’s hands. As ever, he is his own cinematographer, “Peter Andrews”, and using the state-of-the-art digital equipment that he discussed in the recent celluloid-versus-digital documentary Side By Side, he contrives some eerily powerful images, elegantly framed. The simplest scenes – a doctor’s office, a subway station, a bar – look like scenes from a nightmare.


Watch the Side Effects trailer Link to video: Side Effects: watch the trailer for Steven Soderbergh’s new film

Jude Law gives his best performance since Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr Ripley, playing Dr Jonathan Banks, an ambitious and fashionable Manhattan psychiatrist who thinks of himself as a decent guy. Dr Banks has a heavy caseload, and is more than ready to consider the blandishments of the pharmaceutical industry, who are prepared to pay him the big bucks to prescribe some of the hi-tech anti-depression drugs they are developing.

The destiny of handsome, compassionate Dr Banks intersects with that of a beautiful and troubled young woman, Emily, played by Rooney Mara. She is someone else who had grown accustomed to the good life, until her investment-banker husband Martin, played by Tatum, was arrested and imprisoned for insider dealing some years ago. Now he is out, and Emily has discovered that her already existing issues with depression have been intensified by the grim reality of making a home with no guarantees about future income – or anything. She is discovering for herself that a working definition of depression is an inability to imagine the future. After a strangely needless car accident, Emily comes under the care of Dr Banks, who suspects that she is trying to hurt herself, and after some false starts with conventional medication, he puts her on the very latest in prescription drugs. Almost at once, Emily becomes happy, excited, well adjusted and sexually fulfilled. But there are side effects – chiefly a disruption to her sleep patterns and a strange new habit of ultra-lucid sleepwalking.


Peter Bradshaw, Xan Brooks and Andrew Pulver review Side Effects Link to video: Side Effects

Side Effects is bizarre and preposterous, in some ways, but with Mara’s star wattage it has the compelling quality of a bad dream, anchored in what is recognisable reality. Her haunted face is almost like a digital avatar, created through some impossibly sophisticated animation technique. One of the film’s most disturbing sequences comes when Martin and Emily attend a smart cocktail party: she, in an attempt to clamp down on the panicky anxiety rising to the surface, absents herself to the bar and sees a distorted reflection of herself in the mirrored wall surface that makes it look as if she has some kind of disfigurement. For an awful moment, that distorted face does not seem any more or less real than the real one.

For his part, Law’s Dr Banks is the sinister helpmeet, perfect for bringing out Emily’s neuroses: he is bland, conceited, self-congratulatory, more than a little liable to indulge a beautiful young patient. Soderbergh shows sure judgment in not including his drugs’ Stepford-bland TV advertising – a more clumsily “satirical” movie would have done this – but instead relies on Law’s own face as the perfect pharma embodiment. He is specious and self-possessed, credibly human and flawed, but also greedy and vain. What a gripping and disturbing thriller this is. Surely it can’t be Soderbergh’s last movie. Say it ain’t so.

If this is, as promised, Steven Soderbergh’s final movie, he’s signed off on a crafty, bamboozling high with Side Effects. Perhaps we should pause to salute a film-maker who has managed to be prolific without abusing quality control, or not much. True, I cordially despise the whimsical fodder of Ocean’s 11/12/13, his daft satire The Informant! and those nutty experimental efforts (Schizopolis) he allowed himself now and then. Consistency hasn’t been his strong suit, but then it wasn’t Robert Altman’s either.

Soderbergh has made more good than bad, and even when not at his best his films have been founded on intelligence, craftsmanship, a willingness to take risks and a determination to keep entertaining. If he hasn’t made anything quite as funny and inspired as his 1989 debut, sex, lies and videotape, then let’s admit it was a hard act to follow.

What’s interesting about Side Effects is that it starts out as one sort of film and ends as quite another. After 20 minutes or so you may have placed it as a medico-moral drama in the style of his earlier Erin Brockovich, with a pinch of his disaster flick Contagion thrown in. From the story of one woman’s mental illness questions of guilt and retribution ripple outwards. That woman would be Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara), a young Manhattan professional who has been waiting for her husband (Channing Tatum) to be released from prison; he was convicted for insider trading four years previously.

Once reunited, they have a hard time picking up the pieces. Evidently fragile, and perhaps severely depressed, Emily raises a cry for help when she drives her car at speed into a wall. Recovering in hospital, she is attended by Dr Banks (Jude Law), a psychiatrist with a decent bedside manner and a private agenda: prescribing a new antidepressant, Ablixa, he hopes to benefit from enrolling Emily in a drug trial that will earn him $50,000 on the side.

We know from the start that this will not go well. The opening scene noses through a city apartment whose floor is slick with blood, lots of it. Someone has been murdered, but who? This is left poised as the narrative tracks back three months earlier to Emily’s mental travails.

What sets up the movie so artfully is the casting of Rooney Mara. Cleaned of the goth warpaint that made it a mask in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Mara’s face is subtly difficult to read, even when not hidden by a curtain of light-brown hair. Her wide grey eyes are possibly innocent, possibly calculating. Her voice is a puzzler, too, attractively husky at one moment, then adenoidal at another, like she’s got a bad cold. The evidence indicates that this woman needs careful handling, and when things turn from fretful to fateful the issue of responsibility suddenly becomes critical. Was Dr Banks’ original diagnosis of her condition faulty? Was he too much influenced by Big Pharma when he prescribed the new wonder drug?

Written by Scott Z Burns (Contagion), the script finds a good, tense rhythm in its personal and professional confrontations. It furnishes just enough medical science for us to feel flattered, and enough uncertainty in the crosscurrent of motives to keep us guessing. Here, too, Soderbergh’s casting pays off two (arguably huge) risks. If you’d told me Jude Law was about to give his best performance in years I would have shrugged and said wake me up when it’s over… But relieved of having to play the heart-throb, Law really is convincing as the shrink who has got himself in a panic, not merely accused of medical malpractice but suspected by his wife (Vinessa Shaw) of extramarital diddling: the look she gives Emily when the latter throws herself on her husband’s mercy is a great “women beware women” moment. Soderbergh has spotted Law’s capacity for playing the weakling, and turned it to advantage: you’re right there with him as he sweats under the cosh.

The other surprise is Catherine Zeta-Jones as a therapist who treated Emily in the past. Zeta-Jones’s mid-Atlantic accent has always sounded to me an avatar of phoniness, and her acting has tended to follow suit. Here she projects a porcelain confidence that’s showing the tiniest crackle in the glaze; like Law, she has settled into a mature phase, no longer dependent on vamping for her effect. It’s also her chance quotation of a line from William Styron’s memoir of depression – he describes it as a “poisonous fog” rolling over the victim – which marks the film’s significant change of tone.

From its title alone one might assume that Side Effects is partially an indictment of the pharmaceutical industry, of the liberal traffic in prescription drugs and the questionable motivation of psychiatrists in handing them out – like a medical-ethics version of Soderbergh’s Oscar-winning Traffic. Well, so much for assumptions. That might have been an interesting movie, but it’s not the one he’s concocted here, which is a suspense thriller, spiked with a touch of noir.

To reveal any more would be to spoil the fun. Let’s just say it’s pleasingly unpredictable. Soderbergh has slipped us a Mickey Finn and worked up an atmosphere of deception that’s very persuasive. His clever camera movements (he’s also the cinematographer, pseudonymously credited as “Peter Andrews”) and shrewd edits betoken a director right on top of his game. The insinuating score by Thomas Newman links together the sidelong character study of the early stages and the switchback of the latter. With a second viewing, it may look even more accomplished. And so he bows out. Forever? We must hope not, otherwise this will be the maddening reminder of a career prematurely snuffed.


Emily Taylor, despite being reunited with her husband from prison, becomes severely depressed with emotional episodes and suicide attempts. Her psychiatrist, Jonathan Banks, after conferring with her previous doctor, eventually prescribes an experimental new medication called Ablixa. The plot thickens when the side effects of the drug lead to Emily killing her husband in a “sleepwalking” state. With Emily plea-bargained into mental hospital confinement and Dr. Banks’ practice crumbling around him, the case seems closed. However, Dr. Banks cannot accept full responsibility and investigates to clear his name. What follows is a dark quest that threatens to tear what’s left of his life apart even as he discovers the diabolical truth of this tragedy.(Imdb)