The murder mystery has been given a stylish medical makeover by director Steven Soderbergh in ‘Side Effects’. It’s Roman Polanski’s ‘Chinatown’ with a prescription in hand. Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) is suffering from depression following the release of her husband (Channing Tatum) from prison. Her psychiatrist, Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), after conferring with her previous doctor (Catherine Zeta-Jones), prescribes Emily an experimental new medication called Ablixa that results in bizarre behaviour.
Screenwriter Scott Z. Burns mixes up the conventions of a familiar crime story that would usually feature police offers musing over crime scenes and questioning suspects. Instead, the role of the detective is replaced with a medical professional played by Law and Burns submerges the character in the murky world of powerful drug companies, volatile patients and people seeking solace in pills. There are plenty of twists in the plot and Soderbergh’s restraint with his direction allows the film to steer clear of melodrama. The level of paranoia builds to a point where every character becomes a suspect and all the clues are in plain sight to decipher for the inner sleuth to deduce.
A little subtext of an over-medicated society bubbles under the surface when it comes to the relations between medical professionals and drug company representatives. Doctors speak of extravagant holidays and cash incentives form their pharmaceutical overlords in return for promotion or advocacy for a string of medications. It becomes even more disturbing when it appears most characters are medicated in some way and the ease that prescriptions are handed out is alarming, yet business is booming.
Mara is bewitching playing a young woman in a fractured mindset who exudes a fragility that’s unnerving. Law has the intellectual power and presence to carry most the film and elevate it above the procedural elements.
As the mystery unravels Soderbergh and Burns get a little too content and overemphasise major plot points. It’s like they are opening the yellow envelope at the conclusion of a game of Cluedo and detailing every single element of the film in the finale. It seems like a necessary evil that betrays the audiences’ ability to comprehend the film’s elegant scripting and structure.
Soderbergh and Burns successfully update a tired formula and it’s a medical enigma worth delving into. In some cases: gasping, vocal expressions of apprehension or heightened levels of brain stimulation may occur.
[rating=3] and a Half
Cameron Williams - follow Cam on Twitter here: @popcornjunkies