Film Review – Side Effects

Side Effects (MA)

Directed by: Steven Soderbergh

Starring: Rooney Mara, Jude Law, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Channing Tatum

Four stars

Review by: Julian Wright

Steven Soderberg’s films are so hit and miss for me that in the minutes before I settled in to view his latest project, I was overwhelmed with mixed feelings. Will I like this one or will I be bitterly disappointed? To some, his filmography is an impressive string of achievements, as he swings gleefully from low-budget, guerrilla style film making to big budget studio films. But for me it is like a roller coaster ride of creative highs and lows. How does the man who creates such memorable sizzle in Out of Sight produce such a lifeless heist trilogy with the Ocean’s films? Then there are those that show immense promise like Magic Mike and Contagion, which are competently made but flawed and unremarkable.


Soderberg’s filmography is unparalleled. The man is nothing if not eclectic, experimental, adventurous and bloody hard-working. This guy churns out an average of two films per year. Perhaps his zeal and creativity is what many people love about him. For me, his films so rarely click that I can never predict when I am going to emerge from one of his films with a grin or a frown. Maybe others feel the same and that is half the fun. I would like to see a bit more consistency. But imagine my dismay when, having been bowled over by his uneven but fascinating and perceptive Side Effects, news comes out that the director has decided to work exclusively in television. I feel like this guy is toying with me.

Up until the twisty, overwrought thriller-y final quarter in which we learn that nothing is what it seems, Side Effects is one of Soderberg’s greatest achievements, as he exposes the ugly side of the medical profession, while at the same time placing his finger on the pulse of society’s over-reliance on prescription drugs. Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara), who has a history of psychological issues which she believed had been resolved, takes a bad turn when her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) is released from a four-year stint in prison. The readjustment is too much and she quickly descends into a downward spiral of depression as she deals with the shame of her husband’s crimes and suddenly having him back home again. Her therapist Dr Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) prescribes a string of pills to help her but none of them seem to work and Emily becomes suicidal. On the suggestion of Emily’s former therapist Dr Victoria Seibert (Catherine Zeta-Jones) Dr Banks reluctantly prescribes an experimental drugs called Ablixa, which results in horrifying side effects.


This thematically dense drama has an undeniable tension throughout as it examines the effects of depression on those suffering it, those around them and the sufferer’s doctor and delves into rarely explored territory about the ethics behind prescribing medication. Soderberg’s production looks slick but this veneer, juxtaposed with the raw, warts and all script and performances offer a fresh take on the subject matter. He seems to be stretching himself as a film maker, taking this topic deadly seriously as he ropes in his usual distracting colour code obsession (this scene is all  blue, this one is yellow etc) and gone for a more subtle, realistic approach to the lighting.

The final 20 minutes, in which thriller aspects are exploited for a hollow gut punch finale, threaten to cause this film to fall apart. These hard to swallow, showy twists run the risk of undoing the great work Soderberg and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns have achieved up until that point. Had they continued with and focused on the drama instead of the thrills, this could have become a remarkable film. Climactic misstep aside, it is the build up that will remain on our minds. If only there was a pill to help us forget the end.

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