Lines are consistently blurred in Side Effects — such as those dividing fantasy and reality, truth and fiction, guilt and innocence, hero and villain.
Such dichotomies are explored in ways both incisive and entertaining in this twist-filled medical thriller from Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh (Traffic) that thoroughly manages to defy audience expectations. Simply put, regardless of your preconceived notions, it’s not what you expect.
It’s the second collaboration between the versatile Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns, whose 2009 film Contagion also explored medical subject matter. But this effort is taken in a much different direction, with equally compelling results.
This is one of those films that is best seen with as few spoilers as possible, but essentially it concerns a disturbed woman (Rooney Mara) who has had difficulty returning to normal after the release of her husband (Channing Tatum) from prison.
She begins consulting with a Manhattan psychiatrist (Jude Law) who specializes in the treatment of anxiety and depression, and uses the opportunity to prescribe a developmental new drug on the advice of a colleague (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and for which he is a paid consultant. However, the side effects of the medication cause a tragic event that sets in motion circumstances changing each of the characters from that point forward.
Plenty of juicy themes are discussed, including mental illness, medical ethics and malpractice, legal conflict of interest, corporate greed, public paranoia and the justice system, all within the framework of a psychological thriller.
Soderbergh’s direction is mostly slick and straightforward, yielding the spotlight to his actors and especially to the script by Burns, whose clever story relies on its surprises without turning preachy or manipulative.
Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) gives another complex performance by portraying a troubled character with mysterious motives. The rest of the ensemble also is strong.
Side Effects has plenty of red herrings and eventually becomes trapped under the weight of too many twists before its conclusion, but it delivers a solid jolt of entertainment that can be enjoyed either on the surface or by those seeking more of a mental challenge. For those folks, it rewards audience patience, attention and intellectual acuity.
The film also is a cautionary tale of sorts that might prompt viewers to listen next time they hear the monotonous warnings on those soothing pharmaceutical commercials.
Rated R, 106 minutes.