Steven Soderbergh’s Thrilling “Side Effects”

2013 | 109 minutes | Dir. Steven Soderbergh | Endgame Entertainment

“You say insider trading, people act like it’s murder.”


Side effects is the story of a girl, a drug, and the repercussions of both.

Rooney Mara plays Emily, a troubled twentysomething working at an ad agency in New York City.  Her hubby (Channing Tatum) just got out of a four- year jail term for insider trading.  Even though her life is on track, Emily experiences symptoms of depression.  She tries committing suicide by driving her car into a brick wall.  The stunt catches the attention of Dr. Banks (Jude Law).  Together, Emily and Dr. Banks attempt to chart a course of treatment.

Here’s the short version:  Side Effects is one of those movies you can’t say too much about because you might give the whole plot away.  It’s a thriller.  It has some twists.  It’s about the side effects of drugs and everyday actions.  It features hefty use of soft- focus and a chilling score by Thomas Newman.  Everyone gives a great performance.  You should go see it.

All right.  Stop reading now.

Jude Law and Rooney Mara experience some harmful side effects
Rooney Mara and Jude Law experience some harmful side effects.


“Just when I think I like Rooney Mara, she goes and does something fucked up.”

That’s what my sister said as the end credits rolled.  We had just experienced one hour and forty five minutes of a film that looked like a commentary on the pharmaceutical industry, but was actually about something far more creative.

Emily (Rooney Mara) is one seriously fucked up chick.    She easily manipulates of those around her.  She’s a fast learner.  She soaks up every bit of information in her path and uses it to her advantage.  To top it off, she’s the world’s greatest faker and should probably consider a career in acting if she weren’t such an effective con artist.  She’s not depressed, she’s just sick and twisted.   She’s the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but with ombre hair.

After a series of unsuccessful medications, Emily practically begs her doctor to let her try Ablixa, a new drug with a sleepwalking side effect.  Sure enough, Emily starts walking in her sleep.  She listens to experimental Indian music in her sleep. She cooks in her sleep for her husband, herself, and her miscarried child.  And she stabs her husband in the gut, to death, in her sleep.

Emily can’t remember anything and is stricken with grief when she hears the news.  The judge releases her to a mental institution under NGRI (not guilty by reason of insanity).  She remains under Dr. Banks’ supervision until he believes she poses no further threat to herself or those around her.

Shortly thereafter, the side effects of Emily’s crime take their toll on Dr. Banks.  The scandal tarnishes his name.  His two psychiatric partners bump him out of their practice.  A clinical study, for which Banks would receive a $50,000 stipend, drops him.  On top of that, an ex- patient unleashes sexual assault allegations against him.  His wife can’t find a job.  Rather than take everyone’s advice and walk away from Emily with as little baggage as possible, Banks dives headfirst into the fray.

Law’s performance makes the whole film compelling. He’s Sherlock Holmes with an  M.D. in psychiatry, using Yahoo as his magnifying glass. Even when we think he’s about to succumb to lies and deceit, he surprises us by remaining on the side of the truth.

When Banks falls down the rabbit- hole of Emily’s scheme, he becomes like Emily himself, collecting secrets and pieces of information so obvious to everyone else but so vital to his case.  The ex- patient, for instance, cooks up an atrocious lie about her affair with Banks.   At least, we’re assuming it’s a lie, because even at the height of his hyperactivity Jude Law personifies class, honesty and sincerity, and when he says something’s a lie, we believe him.  The tip with the patient points Banks to the theory that maybe, just maybe, Emily is lying too.

Emily really was depressed at one point.  After her husband’s arrest, Emily felt “as if her whole life was pulled out from under her”.  She seeks treatment from Dr. Victoria Siebert, played by Catherine Zeta- Jones.  Here’s where the story gets a little unbelievable.  Dr. Siebert is a raging lesbian who teaches Emily how to act depressed.  She schools Emily on getting on a drug with violent side effects, so she can take out her cheatin’ no good husband somnambulisly.   Emily exchanges information about insider trading.  The two devise a scheme to sway the stock market and bring drug company stocks way down. They do some crafty investing and make a fortune.

Unfortunately, the two really did commit murder.  Dr. Banks catches them both and drives off into the sunset in his BMW SUV.

The film got a little out of hand when Rooney Mara and Catherine Zeta- Jones started making out.  This film tragically suffers from Mullhollund Drive syndrome:  girl- on- girl action keeps the audience from taking the story seriously.   Additionally, Side Effects definitely perpetuates the twisted shrink stereotype.  The psychiatrists behave extremely unethically.  At one point, Dr. Banks psychologically tortures Emily into thinking she’s about to get shock therapy.  The female psychiatrists are particularly bad.  One becomes hysterical and the other takes advantage of her patient.  The plot might have been more convincing without the Emily/Victoria love affair, but I guess not even Hollywood will believe in women motivated by pure greed.

For me, the real chills came when I learned that antidepressant drugs do drive people to do terrible things, like murder their husbands.  Emily’s case is fictional, but other homicides linked to SSRI’s (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) such as Prozac or Zoloft have persisted since the 1980’s.

To add to the film’s eerie aura, the makers of the movie really did set up a functional Web site for Ablixa, complete with an email list, videos, and a tagline:  Take Back Tomorrow.  Ablixa looks like such a typical antidepressant drug that I had no problem believing in its authenticity.  I love that.  I love that the fictional drug has a real website.  It makes me feel like the whole thing was real.

Screen shot 2013-02-11 at 4.35.44 PM

Personally,  I liked believing that antidepressant drugs have a harrowing dark side behind the façade of happy people, sunshine and parting clouds.  With Side Effects, I wanted an intense psychological thriller, with actual mental problems, not just perceived ones.



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