If Side Effects proves to be Steven Soderbergh’s swansong, as he has claimed, then he’s going out on a high. This tangled web of drugs and deception is a cracking thriller in the Hitchcockian tradition, though I’m loathe to say exactly which Hitchcock films it borrows from for fear of spoiling the plot.
The most I can say is that it centres around depressed Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara), who has waited four years for her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) to be released from prison following his conviction on an insider trading charge. But after his release, Emily’s depression gets worse. Her doctor Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) prescribes an anti-depressant which is known to have peculiar side effects and… No, that’s all I can say.
Performances are all good, not just from Mara and Law but also Catherine Zeta Jones, who pops up too as Emily’s former doctor. Soderbergh directs with a cold, clinical precision that suits the subject matter – including a memorable opening and closing shot, and a couple of odd angles that provide interesting narrative clues. Scott Z Burns screenplay is a well-judged mixture of thriller tropes, with plenty of twists, red herrings and one or two surprisingly shocking moments. It’s worth adding the usual warnings about sex, violence and bad language – though I’d argue nothing was gratuitous.
On a moral/spiritual note this eschews any kind of big message, though it flirts with themes of greed as well as satire on the pharmaceutical testing business. Ultimately more film noir staples of deception and revenge become apparent, and again it’s difficult to say more without spoiling the plot.
In short, if you enjoy a grown-up twisty-turny potboiler then Side Effects fits the bill pretty well.