Side Effects is a misleading movie in that it starts off by taking us down a path, and then halfway through, takes us down another. It seems to address the issues of medication and sleepwalking, and how they directly correspond to murder, but later deals with fraud and greed. Thinking about it now, it is essentially two separate movies, linked by character and plot device. Usually, this would be a bad thing, but both “movies” are linked by a bond that’s strong and very engaging.
We meet Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara), an attractive young woman who works at an ad agency. She’s friendly with her boss, and we can find nothing discernibly wrong with her. Her husband, Martin (Channing Tatum), has just been released from prison after serving four years for insider trading. Their reunion is a happy one, but something has crawled up Emily’s bum, and while she makes love to Martin, her face is as blank as a white page. Later, she drives her car straight into the carpark wall.
She has severe depression, and begins seeing a psychiatrist, Jon Banks (Jude Law), who, after consulting with Emily’s previous doctor, Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), decides to put her on something new: Ablixa. As the pharmacist hands her the box, she lists all the possible side effects: Nausea, irritation, change in appetite, etc. She forgets to mention one thing: Sleepwalking.
People can do very strange things when they sleepwalk. I remember watching an episode of Oprah — don’t ask me why I was watching it — that dealt with people eating while being asleep. They would actually get out of bed, walk downstairs, open the fridge, and make themselves a sandwich. They would wake up the next morning either on the kitchen floor or back in their beds, without any memory of what they had done. The same is applied to people who have sex in their sleep, or who kill other people. There is a scene in Side Effects where a lawyer explains to Jon that sleepwalking murders have happened before, and that the “murderers” couldn’t be convicted because they had no idea what they were doing. I can’t remember the cases, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they were real.
Why is this of any importance? Because Emily stabs Martin to death while sleepwalking, and because sleepwalking is an apparent side effect of Ablixa, her case sends Jon’s career into a massive tailspin that sees the end of his investments, his practice, and his family. This is part one of the movie.
Part two starts when the hair on the back of Jon’s neck cannot stop tingling. He suspects that something is amiss with Emily. He becomes obsessed, like Danny Glover was in Saw, or Jake Gyllenhaal in Zodiac; he pins papers and diagrams to his living room wall, much to the agitation of his wife — or lover — who grows increasingly impatient. He tracks down leads and interrogates witnesses. He is convinced he has proof, but cannot take it anywhere. So, he decides to settle things his own way.
Side Effects is the kind of movie that is able to hold our attention in several ways. It uses misdirection to keep us engrossed. It uses music to heighten moods and atmospheres. It uses conflict to make us share sympathy. Its actors are good and effective, and our hero earns our support, even if, at times, his methods are unorthodox. Its plot is interesting and well-developed, and never lacks that little bit of intrigue. It is sharply directed by Steven Soderbergh, in whose hands the movie is slow and steady, but never boring.
The characters are also well-developed, each bringing about baggage from the past that seeks to haunt their present, and unquestionably, their future. Jon is caught up in a situation that isn’t of his making, and he’s not happy about it. How can someone just barge into my life and take it away? I will not stand for this! And indeed he doesn’t. He is the crusader for all psychiatrists, even if it means incriminating one of his own. But he, too, has baggage: Improper conduct between a doctor and a patient, perhaps? He says it’s a lie, but we don’t know for sure. We take his word for it, and then stand behind him all the way while he tries to redeem himself. We don’t know if he’s trustworthy, we just know that the people he’s fighting aren’t. And really, that’s all that matters.
Best Moment | I’m pretty sure I can think of a better one, but right now, the only moment coming to my mind is the stabbing. Wonderfully set up and staged.
Worst Moment | “Emily? Are you okay?”