Heath Ledger, Michael Jackson and Anna Nicole Smith are just a few of the famous figures to have met their makers via a deadly cocktail of prescription medication. Conrad Murray, Jacko’s personal Doctor Feelgood, was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter following the singer’s death and is currently serving a four-year jail sentence.
More US citizens now die from prescription drug abuse than from car accidents. It’s a scary state of affairs and no mistake: a pharmaceutical epidemic crying out for dramatic treatment.
Small wonder then it appealed to Scott Z. Burns, a writer who, as 2011’s Contagion revealed, is a dab hand when it comes to fleshing out apocalyptic fact-based scenarios. Burns had hoped to direct his Side Effects script himself, but elected to hand the megaphone over to Steven Soderbergh when the latter showed an interest.
The result bears out the wisdom of that decision, Soderbergh’s cool self-lensing bringing an aptly clinical sheen to a fiendishly ingenious tale that doesn’t need pills to play with our perceptions.
Kicking off with a slow zoom into an Upper West Side apartment building - the first of a number of nods to Hitchcock’s Psycho – that is shortly revealed to be the site of a bloody crime scene, Side Effects quickly establishes an atmosphere of anxiety and unease.
Back-tracking three months, we are introduced to Emily (Rooney Mara), a 28-year-old graphic designer whose husband Martin (Channing Tatum), a former Wall Street broker, is about to be released from prison after a four-year stretch for insider trading.
Emily should be delighted to be getting her man back, but it can be hard to readjust. Sex for her is a loveless hump spent staring at the ceiling, while sanity is only maintained with a regular intake of antidepressants.
Yet it still comes as a shock when Mara climbs into her hubby’s shiny motor, plants a red-heeled foot on the accelerator and drives full tilt into a parking garage wall. Her dice with death leaves her with a bump on the bonce, one very concerned partner and a new shrink in the form of Dr Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), a highly successful physician with no shortage of restoratives for his troubled patient. None of the usual suspects seem to work, however, prompting Banks to prescribe a radical new drug recommended to him by Emily’s erstwhile psychiatrist (Catherine Zeta-Jones).
The pill is named Ablixa, but it might as well be called Miracle Cure for the good it does to Rooney’s temperament, well-being and sex drive. As Tatum gasps contentedly after one sweaty bonk, “whoever makes this drug is going to be fucking rich!”
Dry mouth, nausea and irritation? Sure, Emily can handle those. Sleepwalking, though, is another matter completely, leading as it does to a surprise reversal that turns Side Effects on its head and sends it spiralling into conspiracy thriller territory.
To disclose more would be a disservice to both the viewer and Burns’ intricate plotting. Suffice to say that Law’s smug self-assurance does not last for long as he confronts the very real possibility of losing his liberty as well as his licence. “I don’t understand it,” sighs Tatum’s bewildered mother (Compliance star Ann Dowd). “You watch the commercials on TV and people are getting better!”
As much as the film toys with social commentary, though, it is at heart a noir in the twisty tradition of Double Indemnity, Body Heat and The Postman Always Rings Twice. The small-screen likes of Quincy, M.E. and Diagnosis Murder also come to mind as Law turns detective to fathom how deep the rabbit hole goes.
And there’s a satisfying strain of sexual ambiguity thrown in as well, with Zeta-Jones’ stern specs and ever-present clipboard hinting at more than just professionalism.
With no dragon tattoo or facial piercings this time around, Mara has no difficulty convincing as the “wounded bird” Law takes under his wing. Yet there is a core of steel lurking beneath the surface, just visible enough to hint at her character’s true nature, while being sufficiently oblique to wonder who this woman is when she’s not suffocated by depression.
Law flirts nimbly with his own screen persona, inviting us to revel in his doc’s comeuppance before winning us over anew with his tenacity and smarts.
Zeta-Jones, meanwhile, gives the film an invigorating dose of old-school vamp, channelling the likes of Ava Gardner and Barbara Stanwyck for one of the few directors who really knows how to use her. (And her husband too, if Soderbergh’s upcoming Liberace biopic is anything to go by.)
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Starting off in one place and ending somewhere else entirely, Soderbergh's sleek mystery takes pot-shots at Big Pharma while still delivering a polished genre product that's rarely hard to swallow.