At first glance, Side Effects seems to sit in the same camp as Steven Soderbergh’s recent rush of ensemble-tooled thrillers such as the revenge flick Haywire and the apocalyptic Contagion. Indeed, like the latter, this film springs from a Scott Z Burns script, takes inspiration from contemporary medical issues and features Jude Law touting a miracle cure for the world’s problems - only, this time, it’s not a viral epidemic he’s fighting, but the suicidal depression of a young woman.
Dr Jonathan Banks (Law) approaches Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) like any other patient, and prescribes her the same cocktail of medication with names full of high-score Scrabble letters - Zoloft, Effexor - that keeps everyone from Emily’s work colleagues to Banks’ own wife on an even keel. But when a cushy consulting contract with a pharmaceutical corporation comes his way, Banks instead moves his patient onto a new drug, Ablixa, which has dangerous side effects not only for Emily, but for her husband (Channing Tatum). Faced with lawsuits and a tarnished reputation, Banks desperately searches for the truth behind this perilous wonder drug.
This could easily have been a brow-beating soapbox rant about premature prescription and medical corruption, but Soderbergh and Burns refuse to conform to expectations, and Side Effects constantly shifts and morphs before our eyes. It’s a testament to the flexibility of the performances (if perhaps not their subtlety, as evidenced by Catherine Zeta-Jones vamping it up as Emily’s suspicious former psychiatrist), that the film baits and switches with such grace, jumping from a psycho-thriller satire to an exhilarating potboiler filled with red herrings, double-crosses and the greyest of moral landscapes. As Banks starts to uncover a complex conspiracy, Law proves to be as adept an amateur gumshoe as he was a corporate shill, but it’s Mara - already turning heads for her performance in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo - who really impresses here, bearing not only the narrative’s emotional core, but also its central mystery.
Side Effects’ rug-pulling might not be the most enriching or socially engaging cinema experience, but Soderbergh is clearly committed. In fact, the film’s opening sequence should have given the game away. It recalls Psycho with its slow survey of an urban skyline, homing in on a high-rise apartment building and the people inside, moving from macrocosmic themes to the domestic microcosm. The link to Hitchcock is key - for Soderbergh is playing the audience like a piano, and what a joy it is to be played.