A psychological thriller with an inherent social commentary on the danger of prescription anti-depressants
The Cannes film festival has just ended and in its glowing array of the lofty chosen is a film called Behind the Candelabra about the pianist Liberace and his secret affair with his chauffeur Scott Thorson. Although I have not seen this film, I mention it because it goes a long way in showing the diverse range of subject matter that Steven Soderbergh, the director, is interested in.
Behind the Candelabra was made the same year as Side Effects, a psychological thriller with an inherent social commentary on the dangers of prescription anti-depressants. So in 2013, Soderbergh, who also shoots his own films under the pseudonym Peter Andrews, made a film about a gay romance and one about murder and the American pill taking culture.
Sadly, Soderbergh has declared his distress at the current sequel churning nature of Hollywood and has decided to retire from filmmaking in order to paint. If you have been reading this column, you may remember that Side Effects is the third Soderbergh film I have reviewed. This is because when you begin a film by him you know you are about to view the work of an expert, a deeply professional filmmaker who ceaselessly explores his medium, relying on transparent, cool filmmaking techniques while tackling extremely diverse and complex subjects.
Of course Soderbergh has made light fluffy stuff like Out of Sight (1998) and the three Ocean’s films, but Side Effects, though slightly fantastical, is at the opposite end of the spectrum from ‘fluffy’.
Rooney Mara, the waif like genius who also portrayed Lisbeth Salander in the English adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011), plays a young bereft Emily Taylor, whose husband Martin (Channing Tatum) has been jailed four years for insider trading.
Incandescent with happiness when she goes to receive him at the end of his sentence, it is wholly a surprise when we realise that Emily has actually struggled with depression her entire life. A few days after Martin’s release, Emily drives her car into a wall on purpose. At the hospital, where she is concussed, scratched, and bruised, she meets Jonathon Banks (Jude Law), an experienced psychiatrist who immediately recognises her depression and only agrees to release her on the grounds that she see him regularly.
For the next few months, Emily struggles to adjust to various anti-depressants, most of which do not agree with her, making her vacant, lethargic, and still prone to suicidal tendencies. It is only when she almost jumps off a subway platform that Banks agrees to put her on a new drug called Ablixa, which was recommended by Emily’s previous psychologist Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who used to treat her when the couple were flush with Wall Street cash.
As Emily becomes normal again with Ablixa, barring a few sleepwalking episodes, it comes as a shock when the film suddenly morphs from a sociologically inclined drama to a full-blown murder mystery.
I won’t go further into plot details so that you may enjoy the intricate detective work in this greatly entertaining film. All I will say is, this film, which I really hope will not be Soderbergh’s last, is one of the best written, tightly acted, and riveting mainstream movies I’ve seen in a while.
Side Effects, scripted by Soderbergh’s long time collaborator Scott Z Burns, could have gone horrifically wrong in a more self-indulgent director’s hands, becoming melodramatic and maudlin. Instead, in Soderbergh’s capable hands it wields a cool thrill.
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Side Effects, a film directed by Steven Soderbergh