Side Effects - Blu-ray Review

'manages to generate a palpable atmosphere of tension and desperation, buoyed by Law’s performance'

Contained within Side Effects is a taut and well-crafted psychological thriller. Director Steven Soderbergh generates a set-up of both interest and originality - not something seen all that often in contemporary thrillers. As Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) sees his life and career tumble down around him thanks to a set of circumstances in which he, at least at the time, felt he acted in the best interests of patient Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara), Soderbergh manages to generate a palpable atmosphere of tension and desperation, buoyed by Law’s performance making the character’s unenviable circumstances all the more believable.

As Dr. Banks delves deeper into Emily’s past, developing his conspiracy theories despite the reluctance of his colleagues and legal counsel to support him, Soderbergh feels completely in control of where he is taking his audience, what he allows us to know and when. Strengthening this is a twist that many may have been able to predict – especially after a Hitchcockian opening sequence concluded by a “three months earlier” caption – but very few would have placed quite where Soderbergh expertly positions it in his story.

What lets Side Effects down is the opening and closing acts bookending this gripping middle act thriller. The opening thirty minutes or so signposts the film as something really quite different, with Soderbergh’s focus squarely on contemporary attitudes to depression, in particular the American obsession with curing any mental ailment with prescription drugs. Characters openly discuss counteracting the unwanted adverse effects of anti-depressants by taking further pills, and one scene sees medical professionals bid for contracts to trial new drugs with their patients in a style not unlike those seen in Jason Reitman’s satirical Thank You For Smoking.

The opening act feels more like a reworking of Soderbergh’s drug opus Traffic, with the aim switched to prescription rather than illegal substances, except never nearly as effective. Everything at the start, from the acting to the direction, feels turgid and sluggish. Even Law feels as though he knows something much better will arrive after the first half an hour, holding back during the opening act by giving a muted, pedestrian turn.

The climax goes too far the other way, with things moving from the tense thrills of the middle section to outrageous revelations and overblown characterisation. Soderberg falls back on hackneyed devices, seemingly because he can’t think of any other way to wrap things up. The choice to reveal a sexual relationship between two of the characters also feels frankly like a cheap attempt to inject some titillation into proceedings for no good reason. It is entirely unnecessary.

Perhaps most surprising of all, however, is the ending’s complete lack of ethical compass considering the film’s opening moralistic questions regarding how freely drugs are prescribed and used. Soderbergh’s biggest failing here is his inability to rein in the tone and structure of his film as a whole. Side Effects is ultimately worth a watch thanks to its strong middle section; it’s just a shame that this quality couldn’t be maintained by Soderbergh from beginning to end.

By Ben Broadribb. Ben is a regular contributor to Film Intel, having previously written at Some Like It Hot Fuzz. He is normally seen in the wild wearing t-shirts containing obscure film references. He is a geek, often unashamedly so. He's also on and Twitter.


  1. I liked Side Effects for giving me an entertaining evening at the cinema with my mum. Didn't see many of the twists coming and liked the many layers. But yeah, it's not a great movie.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Mette. I agree Side Effects is entertaining. After the slow start, I found myself really enjoying this, but felt let down by the ending. There's a lot here to like, most of which can be found in the middle section - if that had been extended to the whole film it could have been excellent.