Side Effects is a fairly dumb movie, but it’s a smart-dumb movie, possibly because in the years prior to its release Steven Soderbergh was spending a lot of time collaborating with Channing Tatum, easily the greatest emissary for the concept of smart-dumb in a generation. The film, despite its lower-tier status in the Soderbergh canon, is a nearly platonic demonstration of Soderbergh’s gift for a type of filmmaking that doesn’t prize style over substance, but rather transforms style into substance. What begins as a Problematic Contemporary Issues movie—dancing around weighty topics like the Great Recession, mental health, the influence of pharmaceutical companies, and the shortcomings of the criminal justice system—gleefully devolves into joyful tawdriness.
Side Effects reserves its reverence for a much-maligned genre, the kind of mid-budget adult thrillers that thrived in the ‘90s, but which are now usually just dumped into theaters in early February, after Oscar nominations are in (not for nothing, Side Effects also had a February release). You can throw a rock today and hit a piece of writing on any contemporary movie arguing that, now more than ever, this is the film we need to help us wade through the waters of whatever cultural ill most saturates the headlines. At first, Soderbergh appears to be courting that kind of attention with Side Effects, before making a different argument entirely: that what we need, particularly at the movies, is a cheap thrill, a lowbrow confection in a glossy, A-list package.
When we first meet Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara), she is anxiously applying lipstick before going to visit her husband, Martin (Channing Tatum), who is wrapping up a stint in prison for insider trading (2013!). Shortly after his release, she begins exhibiting signs of severe depression, culminating in her driving a car into the wall of a parking structure. She ends up in the care of a psychiatrist, Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), who is introduced to us as an intelligent, compassionate practitioner, recognizing a young Haitian patient’s hallucinations as grief-induced and not psychosis. But we also see Dr. Banks accepting an opulent lunch at Le Cirque on a pharma rep’s dime, prescribing beta blockers to help his wife through pre-job interview jitters, and delightedly gloating about his $50,000 consulting gig for a new anti-anxiety medication. He may not be willing to breach medical ethics, but he is all too happy to exercise the full extent of his privileges.
Banks begins treating Emily with a combination of talk therapy and a series of antidepressants, each presenting its own complications and (I’m sorry!) side effects: listlessness, nausea, insomnia, crying in front of Mamie Gummer on a yacht, the works. You could be forgiven at this point for thinking that the movie had descended into a tiresome polemic against the evils of treating mental health problems with drugs, particularly in the wake of Soderbergh’s Contagion, a film which very much made medical policy and ethics its business.
Banks consults with Emily’s former psychiatrist, Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones, whose purse-lipped performance and severe styling carry more than a whiff of sultry camp). Proffering a branded pen like Maleficent beckoning Sleeping Beauty to the spindle, Dr. Seibert suggests starting Emily on Ablixa, a new drug on the market. And at first, it seems to work like a charm. Emily has energy again! Her sex drive is back! She can enjoy an afternoon at the High Line with Martin and not make fun of his little hat even once! But soon a new and more disconcerting (I’m sorry!) side effect emerges: she begins sleepwalking. There’s an eerie, heightened quality to the way in which Soderbergh films this scene. Emily pads around the apartment with a zombified indifference to the music she is blasting, or to Martin’s attempts to engage her, echoing her depressed state earlier in the film.
The question of whether to keep Emily on Ablixa becomes an ethical test for Banks. His first instinct is to take the path of least resistance and switch her medications, but Emily begs to stay on the drug, stating that her only other alternative would be to start all over with a new doctor. Though she speaks offhandedly, there has been a subtle power shift between the two. The camera lingers on the subtle flicker of suppressed doubt on Banks’ face as he decides to override his best judgment in favor of keeping Emily in his care. She stays on the Ablixa. It’s a small moment, weighted with foreboding.
The ominous mood turns out to be justified; Emily’s next sleepwalking episode culminates in her stabbing Martin to death with a kitchen knife when he interrupts her preparations for an REM-sleep dinner party. Emily’s affectlessness throughout the scene makes it all the more chilling. Her face is visible but masklike, recalling vacant slasher boogeymen like Halloween’s Michael Myers. This shocking moment of violence, following a series of near misses, is the first major indication that Side Effects is more bound by the rigors of genre than of a social agenda, but Soderbergh quickly turns our attention back to the legal and ethical implications of the killing.
A trial and a media circus soon follow, and Banks finds himself caught between a rock and a hard place, receiving consultation offers from both the prosecution and the defense. To side with the former would mean working toward the punishment of someone he truly believes isn’t responsible for her actions, but to side with the latter means admitting that the responsibility might be his for keeping her on the Ablixa, which would leave his reputation in tatters. Banks, presumably regretting his earlier misstep in treating Emily, sides with his conscience and assists the defense—and his life unravels from there.
Emily is ruled not guilty for reasons of insanity. Banks proceeds to lose his practice, his lucrative pharmaceutical consulting contract, and the trust of his wife. Jude Law is at his best here, his natural charm giving way to seedy paranoia as he begins to find inconsistencies in Emily’s behavior, and starts questioning the reality of her condition. His relentless investigation eventually results in him becoming the subject of a tawdry smear campaign, involving the allegations of an affair with a former (now deceased) patient.
Then comes the big twist, a particularly dangerous gambit for Soderbergh following Oceans Twelve, which featured a reversal so lazy and unearned that it was genuinely infuriating (and deservedly criticized). While the twist in Side Effects is far from original, it is much more elegantly executed. Whereas Oceans Twelve revealed that a whole other movie had apparently been going on behind our backs without any hints of its existence, in Side Effects, Soderbergh is careful to leave traces in every frame. When we revisit old scenes with new eyes, he doesn’t merely show us what happened off-camera while we were distracted; he draws our attention to the details that were always there but which we likely missed, things that were off-kilter but small enough to dismiss when we were first making our diagnosis.
In short, Emily is revealed to be not a victim but instead a femme fatale, a woman who faked everything from depression to sleepwalking as part of her scheme to short the stock of the pharma company behind Ablixa, with the help of her conspirator and lover, Dr. Siebert. (It’s all very Wild Things, if Wild Things were willing to call it a day after the first twist.) Side Effects, which up to this point seemed to be grappling with significant moral questions, lays bare its true nature. Banks was a patsy, and not even a specifically chosen one. The allegations of his former patient were, as Emily puts it, “a happy coincidence.” The questions around the ethics of Banks’ treatment of Emily’s depression, his role in her criminal proceedings, and the shadows in his past become moot in light of the revelation of her own deception and amorality. So then the question becomes: to what degree will Banks further compromise himself in order to bring Emily to some kind of justice. Because at this point, with moral complexity all but waived, we all know she deserves it.
Emily’s motivation is thin at best, but that’s the pleasure of her character. She’s not out for revenge, she’s not angry at society, she doesn’t hate her husband, she doesn’t love her partner in crime—she’s just a bad seed. The first time I saw Side Effects, I was skeptical about the casting; Rooney Mara seemed too odd and spooky to be a woman who would ever be happily married to a finance bro and living comfortably in Greenwich, Connecticut (never mind the fact that Mara herself grew up in a comparably affluent Westchester suburb; she’s built a career on making her upbringing seem improbable). With each subsequent viewing, however, I’ve come to appreciate the way her strangeness—much like Zeta-Jones’ vampiness—serves as a hand-tip to the kind of movie Side Effects is. An actor believably in love with Emily’s wealthy suburban life would have a motivating sense of grief for what she has lost, but Mara’s Emily has none. She claims to be angry at having the trappings of ill-gotten wealth taken from her, but her anger seems every bit as affectless and performed as her depression. We are left only with a sense of Emily’s blank remorselessness and tenacious will.
Femme fatales tend to enjoy one of two fates: Either they get off scot-free and ride into the sunset, leaving a trail of ruin in their path like Matty Walker in Body Heat, or they are abruptly struck down, leaving the status quo preserved, like Alex Forrest in Fatal Attraction. Emily’s fate falls into the latter category, notably, since Soderbergh has a history of letting his criminals get away with it. But Emily’s cipher-like quality puts her at odds with the criminals Soderbergh has historically favored (as does her crime—shoulda done a heist, Em!), suggesting that possibly the closest thing to a true north in his crime films isn’t goodness so much as it is charisma.
Emily’s end is nearly fable-like, and as neat an expression of “letting the punishment fit the crime” as Hansel and Gretel shoving the witch into the oven. Manipulated by Banks into giving up Siebert and putting herself under his medical supervision, she ultimately winds up in a mental institution, sedated into a stupor. Society’s ills and complexities are left just as they are, but a villain has been dispatched. It’s all so simplistic and tidy as to feel borderline corny.
It’s noteworthy that, at the time of its release, Soderbergh claimed Side Effects was going to be his last film. He later amended this to his last theatrical release, and then to his last film for like, a little bit, who can really say. It seemed like a really weird note to end on, which was undoubtedly one of the reasons why the announcement was greeted with skepticism. But by that point in his career, Soderbergh really had done it all. He’d been an indie darling, served up blockbusters, crafted Oscar bait. So maybe it was fitting that his faux-swan song was mischievously glib, a film that claims to challenge but instead only entertains.
You’re at the movies, isn’t that enough?