When a screenwriter-director willing chooses to make his last theatrical movie after shooting numerous award-winning and box office hit films for almost three decades, the project is rightfully expected to be a timeless classic that incorporates all of the filmmaker’s best attributes. This is certainly the case with acclaimed filmmaker Steven Soderbergh’s final film, the psychological crime thriller, ‘Side Effects.’ Reuniting with screenwriter Scott Z. Burns, who he previously worked with on ‘Contagion’ and ‘The Informant!;’ Jude Law, the star of the former; and ‘Traffic’ star Catherine Zeta-Jones; Soderberg once again proves his visual prowess, and ability to examine the pitfalls of one of the most important problems plaguing modern American society, in the crime-drama-thriller.
‘Side Effects’ follows Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara), a young married woman who is anticipating the release of her husband, Martin (Channing Tatum), from an upstate New York jail. Martin has made parole after serving a four-year sentence for insider trading. Emily initially seems happy to have her husband come home, as they have spent most of their marriage separated by the justice system. However, she increasingly and surprising finds it difficult to accept his promises that he can recapture the grand life they once had together before he was arrested. Emily once again sinks into a recurring bout of depression, which she seemed to have under control since overcoming her last struggle with the illness during her adolescence.
After a failed suicide attempt, Emily begins weekly sessions with Dr. Jonathan Banks (Law), a successful Manhattan psychiatrist. He prescribes her with several different medications to find the best one to treat her anxiety disorder. The two finally settle on the drug Ablixa, which initially seems to have a positive effect on Emily. However, soon after taking the drug, Emily awakens to find a dead body in her apartment. After she’s arrested for murder, the police question whether it was Emily’s intention to kill the victim, or if she is a victim of Dr. Banks’ medical treatment. Trying to clear his name and help exonerate Emily at the same, Banks calls on her former psychiatrist in Connecticut, Dr. Victoria Siebert (Zeta-Jones), who appears to be hiding secret motives of her own.
Soderbergh smartly reteamed with Burns to create a complex script that showcases the moral and legal repercussions of an important ethical topic in American society. Through Emily’s swift decision to turn to medication during a difficult experience in her life, as well as Dr. Bank’s haste to prescribe one drug after the other, partly for his own monetary gain, ‘Side Effects’ realistically reflects on the country’s dependence on pills to help them cope with life. While the film expertly examines the emotional toll and legal proceedings of a murder trial, the filmmaker’s overall emphasis on what influences people to act the way they do, and how doctors and patients learn to cope with, and understand, their motivations is relatably incorporated into Emily and Dr. Barn’s professional relationship.
Burns also cleverly included surprising plot twists throughout the crime drama thriller that expertly make viewers continuously question Emily, Dr. Banks and even Dr. Siebert’s true motivations, emotions and connections to each other. The screenwriter wittingly provided sufficient background information on the main characters, including Emily’s former emotional difficulties and the questioning of Dr. Banks’ eerily similar personal involvement with patients while he was starting to practice psychiatry in London. However, he intelligently didn’t offer too much information about the characters’ true involvement in the murder, but just enough to show people naturally gravitate towards their old tendencies when placed in toxic environments.
Soderbergh, who also served as the cinematographer for ‘Side Effects’ under the pseudonym Peter Andrews, as he has done on many of his previous films, incorporated his signature intriguing color tones and angles to reflect the motives and emotions of the characters. While flashing back to showcase the happier beginning of Emily and Martin’s relationship, the filmmaker used rich, vibrant hues to showcase the wealth of opportunity and promise the couple had for their future. But in the present day, to showcase that the married couple is struggling to cope with his reentry into society and her inability to adjust to the new aspect of their relationship, Soderbergh skillfully integrates darker and more erratic colors into the story.
The filmmaker also skillfully reemphasized the varying, yet equally powerful, emotions the characters experienced throughout the film with his exquisite camera angles. Whether capturing Emily’s feelings of loss of control over her life through wide, distant frames of her during her incarceration, or chronicling Dr. Bank’s hurried determination to solve the case through fast-paced shots as he looks into the side effects of various medications, Soderbergh intriguingly highlights the characters as how he wants them to be perceived. The well-planned, varied shots subtly influence viewers’ perception of how the characters are reacting to the murder case.
While ‘Side Effects’ doesn’t feature as many glamorous stunts as Soderbergh’s previous films, such as the ‘Ocean’s Eleven’ trilogy, the filmmaker’s final theatrical movie notably and emotionally features his signature exploration into the moral and legal repercussions of an important ethical topic in American society. Through clever and unpredictable plot twists and just enough character development to not completely foreshadow Emily and Dr. Barn’s motivations and reactions, the crime drama thriller poses the all-too-important question of how doctors should positively treat mentally unstable patients. Soderbergh also integrated his signature color tones and camera angles to further reflect the motives of the characters, making the thriller both emotionally and visually captivating.