Steven Soderbergh excels at defying our expectations. He pulls the rug out from under us without losing our attention, which takes masterful technique and timing. During his glorious run of the past five years, Soderbergh’s work has frequently defied the laws of its genre. The Informant! begins as the story of a whistle blower standing up to a large corporation in the vein of The Insider. While those elements are there, it’s actually a character study that doesn’t really care about its apparent topic. Contagion is arranged like Outbreak for the modern age yet subverts our expectations. Soderbergh sets up certain tropes and then ignores them while cruelly killing his characters. This method continues with Haywire, which has baffled some viewers because it feels so different. The remarkable fight scenes show off Gina Carano’s skills, but the plot is so spare that it makes our brains work differently. By this point in movie history, it’s easy to watch films on auto pilot without really thinking about what’s happening. Working in a commercial setting, Soderbergh forces us to question what we see and constantly wonder about the man behind the curtain.
This brings us to Side Effects, which is marketed like a thriller where prescription drugs wreak havoc. Channing Tatum and Rooney Mara play an attractive couple getting back on their feet after his four-year stint in jail for insider trading. With a tagline like “one pill can change your life”, it brings to mind paranoid thrillers where the evil corporation is cruelly manipulating consumers. The typical genre designation of “Crime/Drama/Thriller” from the IMDB tells us nothing about where we’re heading. These questions remain as the story veers widely across multiple perspectives. The initial protagonist is Emily Taylor (Mara), who’s struggling with depression following her husband Martin’s (Tatum) return. The camera pulls into extreme close-ups on her face as she contemplates suicide and loses her will to live. The first act clearly shows her awful state, and we’re just waiting for the other shoe to drop. Mara brilliantly shows the vulnerability in Emily’s entire body as she wills herself through each day. There are few reasons to question the reliability of what we’re seeing.
Beyond Emily’s story, Soderbergh and Writer Scott Z. Burns (The Informant!) paint a scathing portrayal of the pharmaceutical industry that’s rarely seen in a commercial film. The culture of new drug breakthroughs and underhanded deals to sell them feels more dangerous than the personal stakes. While this bleak portrait matches the real world, it resembles a dystopian setting more than we’d like to admit. Damaged souls are being controlled by powerful drugs with brutal side effects. This culture is seen through the eyes of Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), a well-meaning guy who’s been corrupted by this landscape. When his story begins to take center stage, it’s off-putting because the first act has set up Emily as the lead. The confusion rises and makes our educated brains scramble to figure out where we’re going. Will this be a crime procedural? Will Banks become the “innocent” man on the run straight out of a Hitchcock film? Soderbergh and Burns are clearly in control and use subtle misdirection to keep us from understanding their true intentions. They’re able to criticize drug companies because it’s masked under the guise of a conventional thriller.
The pivotal factor in sticking with this movie is recognizing the presence of an unreliable narrator. We don’t hear voice-over commentary from Emily, but the camera is clearly following her perspective. Even when she commits a horrible act, we’re still in her corner because the drug is the real enemy. Of course, our only evidence is what she shows us. Even when Banks starts to unravel a different manner of conspiracy, it doesn’t seem real because that would implicate Emily. Why would we spend so much time with a character that isn’t dependable? That deception starts to reveal Soderbergh’s brilliant construction. His gorgeous cinematography keeps us engaged, and we’re so drawn into the personal story that it’s easy to put on the blinders. When Emily drifts into the background (for a time) and we shift to Banks’ perspective, the confusion reaches an all-time high. The enemy isn’t just the drug company, but the opportunists that take advantage of the system. The fast-paced environment nurtures crime and shows just how thin Banks’ idyllic world really is. He’s just moved into an attractive home with his wife and son and is earning a lot of money. It’s the American dream on full display, but it’s really just a house of cards ready to be toppled.
An undercurrent throughout Side Effects is the aftermath of the 2008 recession, which continues to have devastating effects today. Martin is finishing a four-year stint in jail, which lines up with that timeframe. He immediately wants to get back in the game, so this time away hasn’t diminished his feelings on winning via the financial system. Emily doesn’t seem to love the big guy and yearns more for the material possessions than his presence. Her sense of loss comes from the wealth more than any romantic attachments. Soderbergh shows how idealistic visions of love can only go so far when the entire system is corrupt. The post-recession landscape is even more fraught with peril, and all it takes is the suspicion of wrongdoing to ruin a career. The ending may show a happy family going about their day, but there’s a hollow sense that they’ve only delayed the inevitable fall. Emily’s blank expression while she talks of being “much better” says it all. This emotionless world hasn’t fallen yet, but we’re living on borrowed time.