By Victoria Tickle.

It is a great joy and a rare find to come across a film that lets you believe that you have out-smarted it and know what is going on, whilst all the time waiting for the right moment to reveal its truths to you. Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects is a prime example of such a film. The plot is concerned with the repercussions of an extreme action that Emily (Rooney Mara) undertakes while suffering from side-effects of a new anti-depressant that is prescribed to her by Dr. Banks (Jude Law), following her inability to come to terms with her husband Martin’s (Channing Tatum) recent release from prison for insider trading.

side-effects-1Side Effects plays with the concept of morals and how the audience should feel about them. It twists and contorts many ‘what if?’ situations and questions what we as a society call ethics. For example, there is a murder, and usually the question is who did it? But here, there is no denying who did it, but there is much room to argue about who is guilty. The plot constantly plays with the idea of what is morally right, what is morally wrong, who is to blame and who is really who they say they are. Deception is intricately woven throughout the story and does what it does best – disguises itself as something other than what it is. Neither the characters nor the audience know what is going on behind closed doors. The narrative is reminiscent of many of Hitchcock’s works and handles techniques such as character development, audience investment and general intrigue in a similar style.

There is essentially only one story to follow, the one between Emily and Dr. Banks. Sure, there are a couple other essential characters, such as Martin who is the catalyst to it all and Emily’s former psychiatrist Dr. Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), and naturally the other characters that need to be present for continuity and realism (such as police officers, co-workers and other menial characters). However, the main attention and focus is on the turbulence between Emily and Dr. Banks. It is sheer brilliance on the parts of the writers and the actors for making a whole plot line primarily devoted to two characters for the majority of the movie that can maintain the audience’s attention for every single minute. The shift in emphasis of evil is amazing and moral lines get crossed, and at times erased completely, as we realize that the characters we were so convinced were victims turn out not to be and vice versa.

Side-Effects-Jude-Law-Catherine-Zeta-Jones1The games the characters play with each other require strategy, careful planning and highly accurate anticipation of the human mind and behavioral tactics, and this took brilliant acting to effectively bring across on screen. But beyond the well-written twists and turns, the screenplay allows the actors to really create characters that the audience cares about. These characters deceive us, amaze us, disappoint us (for all the right reasons) and make us question them.

The actors were cast perfectly in their roles. Jude Law gives a strong lead performance, offering believable emotional outbursts as Dr. Banks, who is arguably one of the most interesting characters in the film. He is the main focus of the thriller: a flawed character whose ethics are unclear as he prescribes a new drug to his patients as part of a paid study, yet shows genuine concern for their well-being at the same time. Rooney Mara is also wonderfully mysterious as Emily—an erratic, attractive and seemingly helpless young lady who may not be what she seems. She plays both a deeply depressed victim and a conniving antagonist brilliantly. However, after her previous performance in Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011), it begs the question: Could she have put more into this role? She could have really portrayed the cold, lifeless and hopeless depression suffering patient with more emphasis and realism. Nevertheless, it was still a believable performance. Additionally, it should be said that both Channing Tatum and Catherine Zeta-Jones give outstanding performances considering their lack of screen time.

side-effects-image03Side Effects is a thriller, yet it is not an edge-of-your-seat kind of film; it instead challenges the mind and enters into the psychological-thriller genre. Soderbergh’s latest lulls the audience into a hypnotic like haze, much like the side effects to many real life anti-depressants, and blurs judgement. Still, by the end of the film we have had our questions answered. We know the ins and outs of all of the character’s motives and what happens to them. This closure may be a comforting resolution for some, but it will frustrate others. For those who like a little ambiguity, the ending to this film may not be for you and you might choose to re-create your own.

While Side Effects requires its audience to think, it does not leave them with unanswered ambiguous questions, nor does it present plot twists so intricate that its genius is lost on the majority of its viewers. Instead, the film keeps its plot twists hidden and unattainable until it is ready to release them, without making its audience feel stupid in the process. All the while, beautiful cinematography is in abundance, and no less would be expected from master filmmaker Steven Soderbergh. It is rumored that Side Effects will be the man’s last film. Should the rumor prove true, it will be an outstanding film to end his directorial career on.

Victoria Tickle is a recent graduate with joint honors in film & media and journalism. She writes regularly for Beyond Hallyu, a website analyzing all aspects of Korean culture.

Film Details 

Side Effects (2013)


Director: Steven Soderbergh

Screenplay: Scott Z. Burns

Producers: Scott Z. Burns, A. Sasha Bardey, Elena de Leonardis, Lorenzo di Bonaventura

Director of Photography: Steven Soderbergh

Art Director: Miguel Lopez-Castillo

With Rooney Mara (Emily Taylor), Jude Law (Dr. Jonathan Banks), Catherine Zeta-Jones (Dr. Victoria Siebert), Channing Tatum (Martin Taylor)

Runtime: 106 minutes

DVD: U.S. 2013

Distributed by: Open Road Films

Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1

One thought on “Side Effects (2013)”

  1. I feel like we saw an entirely different film.

    Side Effects is a troubling film on many levels. It is marketed as a film that will take on big pharma and the morally questionable practice of over-prescribing anti-depressants and other popular meds. The first half of the film would have you believe that it is taking on the anti-depressant industry and the doctors who enable and support massive over-prescription.

    At the start of the film, you feel like you are in the capable hands of a daring director who is making an effective and courageous film – that you are in the hands of a “master” who is entirely competent in his craft, and morally centered. But wait — there’s more, and it isn’t good.

    Halfway through, Side Effects becomes an entirely different film altogether, almost as if it had been taken over by another filmmaker or rewritten to the specifications of the corporate suits who represent the industries it purports to critique.

    Side Effects turns into a mind-numbingly stupid, predictable thriller that has little to do with the film you have been watching. It rapidly becomes clear that we have been tricked into seeing the film, which is not at all critical of the medical industry.

    In short, it loses any moral fiber and any audience involvement other than outrage in the stunning moment when you realize you are in the hands of a complete sell out, and all the good acting in the world can’t save this film.

    In the end the film shifts the blame for all things immoral on an archetypal evil lesbian doctor. It is as if a contortionist took over the script, and we’re suddenly presented with a homophobic plot twist, designed to turn all of our attention away from the themes explored in the first half of the film.

    Unlike Victoria, I was enraged when I saw this film, just as I was enraged when I saw Soderbergh’s Contagion, another mess of a film that blames a world wide pandemic on a female who cheats on her spouse.

    Soderbergh is routinely over-rated. His work is wildly uneven. Early in his career, he proved quite capable at making exceptional films, but much of his work of late is tedious and unremarkable. Behind the Candelabra is a vile, sordid and homophobic exploitation vehicle, a television movie being hailed at Cannes as if it were a remarkable artistic achievement.

    Soderburgh keeps on “retiring” and “coming out of retirement.” I, for one, wish he’d stay retired. Perhaps it’s just a great way to keep himself in demand. He’ll soon be directing a series for Cinemax entitled The Knick, starring Clive Owen. I won’t be looking forward to that.

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