Proving that there are more ways to create tension on screen than the loud bass heavy soundtrack shifts common in Hollywood action movies today, Steven Soderbergh’s “Side Effects” hits you like a freight train.
The film is a complete thriller with twists and turns around every corner, and its narrative is nestled in today’s age of prescription drugs being advertised endlessly and consumed recklessly. In fact, the underlying commentary on the dangers of prescription medication is undeniably an important part of Soderbergh’s vision for the film.
Rooney Mara plays the role of Emily Taylor, who has to deal with sudden financial difficulties due to the recent arrest of her husband (played by Channing Tatum)..
To cope with this, along with pre-existing anxiety and depression issues that resurface, she goes to Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) for help. Dr. Banks tries various treatments that fail, and Emily keeps getting more and more psychotic. After her second suicide attempt, Dr. Banks enlists the help of a fellow psychiatrist (played by Catherine Zeta-Jones), who recommends a new drug called Ablixa for Emily.
Things start going downhill rapidly for both Emily and Dr. Banks from here, as the drug’s effectiveness proves to be short-lived and causes Emily to commit horrific crimes. Dr. Banks comes under fire and his professional life is in jeopardy because he was the one who prescribed the untested drug. As a result, he begins to believe there is more to the situation than meets the eye and sets out to uncover the truth around this dangerous new drug.
Soderbergh has assembled a star-studded cast of Hollywood’s A-list which pays off and contributes to the film’s success through the excellent on-screen chemistry.
Law steals the show, and does so while playing a complex character.. Initially, when everybody turns against him in an unbelievably unfair manner, the audience can’t help but root for him. However, some of the decisions he takes to get his life back in order also target other people, and the line between hero and villain becomes blurred, making for a much more unsettling viewing as the audience in turn questions Dr. Banks’ morality.
Mara is still very new to the mainstream Hollywood scene, and has gained the reputation of playing dark characters with roles such as Nancy in “A Nightmare on Elm Street” and Lisbeth in the critically acclaimed “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” Her previous dark roles make it understandable why Soderbergh decided to go with her, and “Side Effects” will definitely go down as one of Mara’s defining early-career moments.
For Tatum, it was refreshing to see him do a film in which he is not the center of attention. Emily’s husband is not a “bad guy” by any stretch of the imagination, and his genuine concern for his wife’s health issues trumps his desire for money.
Tatum is on a particularly strong streak of movies and seems to have recovered from the rough patch when he first entered Hollywood, Based on “oohs” and “aahs” from the theater during “Side Effects,” he remains a hit for the female crowd, but take nothing away from his mature and assured performance here.
There is a tension-filled atmosphere that the film manages to carry out in the entirety of its 106-minute duration. Much of this can be credited to the haunting soundtrack by Thomas Newman, which almost solely consists of lingering bells and chimes.
Of course, the subject matter of the film is just as unsettling: prescription medication is everywhere in society and it is a common remedy used to counter psychological issues.
When someone does something wrong under the influence of these prescription medicines, who is to be blamed? Is it the person for having the condition? Is it biology and how the drug reacts with the brain? Or is it the doctor, who should have known better? All of these questions are raised in the film, and although they aren’t answered, these conversations do need to be taking place.
Soderbergh might just be in the golden phase of his directing career. He has come out with one hit film after the other since 2007, including “Ocean’s Thirteen,” “Michael Clayton,” “Magic Mike” and “Contagion.” Here’s hoping that Soderbergh continues this phase, as “Side Effects” is one of the more intelligent thrillers in the last few years.
Ayush Kumar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.