Side EffectsAmerica’s over-medicated. Whether it’s the cold hard truth or a bitter pill in Hollywood, the trend has led Steven Soderbergh to take another jab in Side Effects. This, not long after the versatile Ocean’s Eleven director and Scott Z. Burns collaborated on Contagion, another thriller that takes a cutting look at the pharmaceutical industry.

In Side Effects, a woman’s life spirals out of control after her psychiatrist puts her onto a new drug with dire side effects. What starts as a tense drug company drama turns into an uneasy psychological thriller. Soderbergh’s social commentary on American culture sets up a smart drama about ethics and the bounds of responsibility for doctors and their patients, but this movie makes way for an old-fashioned thriller in the vein of Hitchcock. It’s difficult to say much more about Side Effects without ruining some of the enjoyment in actually experiencing the twists-and-turns.

Side Effects has a complex set of characters, who attract and repel simultaneously. We want to identify, we want to connect – but they go hot to cold in an instant keeping us at an arm’s length. Soderbergh’s cinematography closes in on the actors much like a crime drama TV series, giving them an opportunity to deliver full, nuanced performances, but there’s very little warmth or intimacy at play.

While Channing Tatum and Catherine Zeta-Jones are draw cards and have worked with Soderbergh in Magic Mike and Traffic, the film really belongs to Rooney Mara and Jude Law. Law and Mara bring an unknown quantity to the picture. They share a strange yet fascinating chemistry, which adds to the chilling atmosphere of the clinical environment and subversive pharmaceutical industry.

Spling MoviesMara’s been described as “still waters run deep” and it’s easy to see in her Oscar-nominated role as Lisbeth Salander in David Fincher’s take on The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo. She’s an enigmatic actress, whose commitment is unquestionable, inhabiting her characters to the point of actually getting the piercings. She revels in the chance to play a complex female lead, something of a rarity in Hollywood these days, and does so with great dexterity.

Jude Law is her co-lead, another actor who doesn’t pay much attention to celebrity. He’s all about the craft and attaining a purity of form, which is difficult when it comes to the business side of acting. In Side Effects, Law turns in another solid performance, although he does seem a little cold and miscast, in contrast to Contagion. There’s nowhere to hide, playing the part with his normal voice and next to no mask.  Law has a distance to this character and you can’t help but wonder how the film would have turned out with someone like Ewan McGregor.

Despite this clinical interest in the characters, the drama is gripping – keeping the audience off-balance and entertained with fine performances and some sly plot developments. We’re drawn in by the slant on pharmaceutical America and kept on the edge by see-sawing characters, who seem to slip through our fingers like mercury every time we think we’ve got a handle.

Side Effects is not Soderbergh’s best film, but certainly slots in alongside the likes of Limitless as a slick crime thriller, backed by solid performances and smart writing. While we may not be emotionally immersed, this dark, contemporary Hitchcockian thrill ride keeps us entertained as one twist overlays another.

The bottom line: Chilling

Stephen ‘Spling’ Aspeling
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