With a film repertoire containing Erin Brokovich, Traffic, Ocean’s Eleven and even Magic Mike, Steven Soderbergh has established himself as a versatile, and beloved, director. Upon announcing that he is taking a “sabbatical” from filmmaking to pursue a passion for painting, Soderbergh has left a plethora of fans yearning for the release of his recent films, including his latest venture, Side Effects. Through the exploration of mental illness, veracity, and human intention, Soderbergh once again lives up to his reputation of excellence.
Rooney Mara stars as Emily Taylor, a woman battling depression upon the release of her husband from prison. After a failed suicide attempt, Emily is introduced to psychiatrist Dr. John Banks, portrayed by Jude Law. John prescribes several antidepressants for Emily to no avail, before finally settling on the new “it” drug, Ablixa. Despite its strange side effects, Ablixa allows Emily to lead a relatively normal life, that is, until a sleepwalking episode ends with tragic consequences. When John becomes embroiled in a scandal involving his handling of Emily’s medical case, he works, almost obsessively, to explain the side effects of the drug. However, the more he delves into the case, the more he uncovers unanticipated, and alarming, secrets.
The film’s strong cast is essential to its success, given that the plot is heavily character-driven. Rooney Mara acts commendably, lending a hauntingly eerie quality to her unreadable character. As Emily’s former psychiatrist, Catherine Zeta-Jones is palpably peculiar. The standout of the film, however, is Jude Law, who delivers a solid performance as a desperate psychiatrist plagued with the worst of luck, fighting to salvage his reputation and all that he has lost. Law finds a striking balance between his character’s somewhat naïve nature, and his infuriated response to a perceived injustice.
Aside from its dramatic quality, Side Effects is remarkably insightful. The film is laced with a thought-provoking motif of past and future. “Depression,” John explains to Emily, quoting psychologist Rollo May, “is the inability to construct a future.” This concise explication of depression skillfully reinforces the plight of Emily’s character. As the film progresses, John illustrates his keenly intuitive understanding of the human psyche by revealing, “The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.” This theme – that human nature is predictable – is central to the message of the film. The earlier this idea is understood, the easier it becomes to deconstruct the carefully crafted plot.