Side Effects (2013)

Side Effects

With nods to Hitchcock and Clouzot, Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects takes on the pharmaceutical industry and the doctors risking it all on wages of fear.

Side Effects

Lost In Medication by Mark Wilshin

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

We’ve had genre-busting and bending filmmakers before, like Michaels Winterbottom and Haneke, yet there’s no-one like Steven Soderbergh who swings between politicised issue dramas such as Che, Traffic and Contagion to the guilty blockbuster pleasures of Magic Mike, Ocean’s Eleven and Haywire with such gusto. Uncredited in his films’ opening titles, Soderbergh refuses to be pigeon-holed, preferring to strike his own peculiar path between edification and entertainment. And with its exhortation of the pharmaceutical industry and its sleep-murdering thriller intrigue, Side Effects is quintessential Soderbergh, walking the fine line between thrills and pills.

Opening with a pan to a non-descript window, Side Effects immediately calls to mind Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. And with its flashback trail of devastation and bloody footprints, it’s enough to get the blood racing and the nerves on edge. Following moody Emily as she picks up her insider-trading husband Martin from the clink, she soon falls back into depression unable to cope with his release, and after a full-throttle-car-ram-into-the-wall-of-a-parking-lot suicide attempt, Emily finds herself in the safe medical embrace of Dr Jonathan Banks. It’s not long before she’s on prescription drugs, up to her eyeballs on antidepressants and serotonin inhibitors before graduating onto the new and well-publicised Ablixa.

Soderbergh’s contempt for the pharmaceutical industry is clear. Here they’re not lambasted for the genocidal patent rigging of Fire In The Blood, but there’s a neat sideswipe at the medicine giants paying their way out of lawsuits with multi-billion dollar settlements. Drug names are bandied about, and not only are pills the answer to all our ills, side effects such as vomiting, hallucination or sleepwalking, are treated with yet more drugs. The pharmaceutical companies have doctors in their pockets, luring away their professional impartiality with wages of over fifty grand to take part in clinical trials. And even despite the free lunch and Dr Banks’ honest remonstrations about his paid participation in the tests, free drugs are enough to encourage patients to take part whatever the risk.

It’s perhaps a stretch, even drugged up on a concoction of nausea and insomnia inducing drug Ablixa and other sedative medications, that Emily could stab her husband in his sleep. And her murder of her fraudulent husband provides an enigmatic reworking of Psycho‘s shower scene, giving Marion Crane her revenge, albeit from the kitchen frying pan into the mental asylum fire. Vertigo appears too, not only in the miscarried baby girl named Madeleine that leads Emily into psychotherapy for the first time, but also in Side Effects‘s structure – Dr Jonathan Banks is the Scottie-like fall-guy, obsessed with a girl, only this time he’s battling for his livelihood rather than for a lost love. It turns out however that it’s not only Hitchcock Soderbergh is indebted to, and as Side Effects descends into a fairly run-of-the-mill double-jeopardy corporate thriller, it recalls Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques, with its male victim at the mercy of the story’s vampish femmes fatales.

Lesbianism, it seems, has a lot to answer for – the secret at the heart of the criminal plot that causes Side Effects to unravel. It’s mercenary and untrusting, the romance coming to a rapid end when Jonathan tricks Emily into believing Victoria has betrayed her with a well-placed handshake. Perhaps more than this illicit lust it’s the women’s greed that leaves one man murdered and another sacked and abandoned and Soderbergh is perhaps aiming for a suspense Side Effects can’t quite manage. But it does go beyond its yuppy-in-peril thriller scenario with its uncovering of Emily’s lies – a kind of fiction-detecting whodunit with Jude Law’s doctor smelling out the truth through borrowings of depressive author William Styron’s “poisonous fog”.

Choosing between lies or sickness, between murderess or victim, Side Effects only deals in madonnas and femmes fatales. The performances are all good, and it’s a taut, intelligent thriller. But dished out by Soderbergh, another white male piecing the story together, Side Effects puts us firmly in the woman’s seat, following Rooney Mara’s Emily all the way. Tripping on stimulants and mood enhancers, but fortunately with little or no side effects.

Side Effects is released on 8th March 2013 in the UK

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