As Steven Soderbergh’s supposed last film before retirement, Side Effects has quite a reputation to live up to. Something of a departure from Soderbergh’s norm, Side Effects focuses far less on the directorial aspects of a film, concerning itself more heavily with the storyline. Written by Scott Z. Burns, who also worked with Soderbergh on The Informant! and Contagion, the psychological web of Side Effects is, of course, made more psychological by the fact that it centers around the psychiatric industry and the associated pharmaceutical juggernaut.
Opening with Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara, who exudes a naturally creepy aura that’s rather perfect for this role) going to visit her incarcerated husband, Martin (Channing Tatum, who Soderbergh obviously developed a crush on during the filming of Magic Mike), her disposition is sullen and erratic from the get-go. When Martin is released, her behavior begins to take a turn for the worse as Martin tries to reacquaint himself with the world of finance (his arrest was a result of insider trading). After Emily deliberately runs her car into a wall in a parking garage, she comes into contact with psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) at the hospital where she is taken for her injuries. Insistent that Emily is admitted into the hospital’s mental ward, Emily promises that she will see him on a weekly basis for therapy if he allows her to go home.
Once Emily begins going to therapy, Dr. Banks immediately prescribes her with Zoloft for her immense depression. He also asks if it would be acceptable for him to get in contact with her former therapist, Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones, who seems to be attempting a comeback these days with both this film and Broken City), to gain insight into her condition. Emily readily agrees, willing to do anything to make some of her pain go away. When Dr. Banks meets Dr. Siebert face to face, she casually mentions that Emily had a miscarriage after Martin went to prison.
Increasingly depressed, Emily nearly jumps off a subway platform, but is stopped by a nearby police officer watching her out of the corner of his eye. Unable to bear the agony any longer, Emily asks to be taken off the Zoloft and put on a medication called Ablixa. Unaware of her proneness to sleepwalking, Dr. Banks readily prescribes her the drug in spite of its effects on those with a sleepwalking condition. Almost instantly, however, Emily begins to have an improved outlook on life–as well as an improved sex drive that Martin shows immense gratitude for. With the positive side effects, though, come the negative ones, including bizarre behavior during her spells of sleepwalking (like setting the dinner table for three).
As her actions begin to get more dramatic, Martin and Dr. Banks mention the possibility of switching Emily to another prescription. Her insistence on staying on the Ablixa is strong as she lifts a quote (unbeknownst to Dr. Banks) from William Styron’s novel, Darkness Visible, stating that her mind feels like a “poisonous fog” without it. Not wanting to take away her feeling of contentment, Dr. Banks opts to prescribe her an additional drug that will help offset the sleepwalking side effect. Her reaction to the drug combination results in her stabbing Martin repeatedly during her sleep.
In the aftermath, it is Dr. Banks who is accused of causing this murderous outcome. As he fights to uphold his reputation in the medical industry, Emily only continues to make matters worse for him by having her mother-in-law make a statement to Good Morning America saying that she hopes no one else falls victim to the effects of this horrible drug. As the media outrage over the case erupts, tensions with Banks’ wife, Deirdre (Vinessa Shaw, who you may remember as that girl who looked vaguely like Hilary Swank in Hocus Pocus), start to mount. It is at this point in the film that Side Effects experiences the Vertigo effect in that the story splits into two separate ones in a way–with the main character revealing a completely different side of herself.
If you’re worried about getting bored during this two-pronged approach to the story, don’t. Like Hitchcock, Soderbergh knows how to artfully maintain interest during a multi-layered psychological drama. And so, if Side Effects is in fact his final film before retiring, the director has asserted his ability to interweave skillfully between multiple genres.