It’s difficult to take Steven Soderbergh seriously when he says that he is retiring from making films. Side Effects is his 10th movie since 2006, an absolutely phenomenal rate of production, and his last 4 films have represented perhaps his most consistent string of films in his career with each of Contagion, Haywire, Magic Mike and Side Effects (review spoiler) being excellent films. It’s certainly a string to rival Out of Sight, The Limey, Erin Brockovich, Traffic and Ocean’s Eleven. It’s difficult to see someone who has been making so many films, and films of such a high quality, would be able to just give it up cold turkey. But if he has, Side Effects is another similarly good film and one which sits well within his back catalogue.
As for how good Side Effects actually is, I’m finding it difficult to decide. It’s a film dealing with mental illness that is, itself, a little schizophrenic. As seen in the trailer at the foot of this page, the film is being sold (in the UK at least) as an indictment of Big Pharma – the pharmaceutical industry – with a patient (Rooney Mara) being prescribed a new-to-market anti-depressant, Ablixa, for her depression. The side effects of the drug are causing ever-worsening symptoms which slowly turn her more crazy. This is an interesting and important story, bearing in mind the secrecy that surrounds many drug companies and their clinical trials (sometimes for good reasons, sometimes for bad). However, if you’re looking for answers, you have come to the wrong place (you should really check out Dr Ben Goldacre’s book Bad Pharma).
Now, at around the halfway point the movie changes tack, and I found it just a little jarring. It’s also at this point that you may want to step out as, while the spoilers will be minimal and certainly won’t give the end away, there will be spoilers from here on in… Instead of following the course laid out in the first half, the film becomes a more traditional thriller, recalling Primal Fear (though my memory of that film is hazy). I’ve heard it suggested that the change is subtle and you slowly come to the realisation of what the story has done, but I was very aware that it was moving away from its starting point. But that doesn’t necessarily need to be a bad thing.
I admit that I felt some pangs of disappointment when I realised what was going on but I’m not sure that’s entirely the film’s fault, what with the advertising campaign raising expectations in a certain direction. Would my interpretation of the opening half have been different if I didn’t think the film was heading in a specific direction? It’s difficult to say and as such, I don’t want to punish the film for that. In fact, it’s difficult to know how the film should have been marketed. If you go in believing it to be the kind of thriller it turns into, perhaps the plot will unravel, become obvious. What should be said is that it is a good film. It’s very well made and, more specifically, very well acted. Jude Law, no longer the heart-throb he was 10 years ago, is adapting to playing some great character roles, of which this is one, while Rooney Mara is proving herself to be a brilliant young talent with a performance which truly announces her skills and range.
Ultimately, Side Effects is a film that will keep you engaged (and entertained) throughout and is well worth a watch, even if it doesn’t quite attain the heights that it at times promises.