Unfortunately, some of the misdirection ends up feeling more like swindling than intriguing in an otherwise well-made film.
Utilizing the script from Scott Z. Burns, Steven Soderbergh delivers a mostly satisfying thriller that presents several twists and turns along the way to keep the audience guessing until the very end. Side Effects starts off as a film about exposing the unethical sides of the pharmaceutical industry but then changes directions several times just as you begin to think the film is about a singular subject. As long as you do not nitpick on the ways the film purposely uses its misdirection to fool you, Side Effects is, at the very least, an entertaining film from the prominent filmmaker.
The brief opening shot of the film is not in chronological order of the story. It shows blood-stained footsteps that lead to model sail boat and an envelope resting on a chair. The film then jumps back three months earlier to show the events that led up to that scene. Side Effects contains many twists that slowly reveal themselves once layers are peeled back, most of which are spoilers, so for your benefit I will not go into great detail about those.
Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) is eagerly awaiting the release of her husband Martin Taylor (Channing Tatum) who spent four years in prison for insider trading. Although she welcomes Martin with open-arms back into her life, you get a sense that Emily has been dealing with depression ever since he was away. Her mental illness is confirmed very quickly when she heads straight for a brick wall with her car without the intention of hitting the brakes or swerving away. The near-death incident lands her in therapy sessions with Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law).
It is revealed that it is not Emily’s first time in therapy and that she has previously not reacted well to the antidepressants that were previously prescribed to her. This prompts her new therapist to write a prescription for a new drug called Ablixa, which does eliminate her suicidal tendencies at first, but as the title suggests, there are side effects of this drug. And anyone who has heard the long-winded disclaimer at the end of medical advertisements knows, the side effects of medicine can potentially be just as dangerous as the symptom it treats.
The major theme found throughout Side Effects is that things are not quite what they seem at first glance. The film deceives the viewer into believing the film is about one thing right before it quickly changes into something different. Side Effects first presents itself as a study about a person who is out of sync with the world, then as a dark look at the pharmaceutical industry, shifting to the unethical practices of psychiatry, all while making the innocent seem guilty and vice versa. The problem is the final twist ends up being more of a gimmicky eye roller than any of the other possible outcomes.
There are a lot of things to admire about the film. Soderbergh uses all the right camera techniques to convey the appropriate message. For example, he uses a lot of angled mirror shots to illustrate the altered perspective of that person, precise focusing and blurring to mimic foggy state of mind, and removing the camera from the steadicam in some scenes to create energy. Then there are the terrific performances from both Mara and Law. Both were at the top of their game which gave the film the validly it needed.
Because Side Effects purposely misleads the audience there is a constant whodunnit mystery that makes for an overall entertaining watch. The first act of the film is deeply engaging as many layers start to unravel. Although the story starts to get a little too procedural in its second act, the final act kicks everything into high gear again by twisting the plot several times before settling (and that is what it felt like) on the final twist. Unfortunately, some of the misdirection ends up feeling more like swindling than intriguing in an otherwise well-made film.