On the face of it Side Effects is a decent Hitchcockian style thriller. It’s also, if we believe it, director Steven Soderbergh’s final movie. If that is the case – and there’s a lot of people who aren’t convinced it is – then this is a strange way to go out. Not because it’s no good – it is very good – but more because it’s not so much a conclusive full-stop as a tantalising semi-colon. This only fuels the sense that in a few years’ time we’ll be hearing from him again.
Jude Law is a psychiatrist caring for the wife (Rooney Mara) a man (Channing Tatum) recently released from prison for white-collar crime, She’s depressed, and medications aren’t working for her. The psychiatrist is being paid to trial a new drug with patients; entirely legally, the woman takes this medication. What follows is a series of side-effects with dramatic outworkings, threatening to sweep a whole series of people away in their wake.
There you have it – a psychological thriller with a decent sprinkling of unpredictability. Good but not great, it would be an oddly low-key way for Steven Soderbergh to take his leave of the film business. It’s more than that, though. It’s an indictment of the careless exploitation of big pharmaceutical firms looking for the next wonder drug; exploitation of tiring, stressed medical professionals with bills to pay as well as patients who just want to get better. It’s about revenge and the depths it leads us to sink to if we allow it to get its claws in us.
It’s about many more things than these – but unavoidably it’s about mental health. Jude Law is unavoidably British in a film set in the USA. This isn’t hidden away nor does Law try on a dodgy accent. Instead it’s embraced. At one point he’s asked why he’s working away from his homeland. His reply is telling. He says that a person in therapy in Britain is assumed to be sick; in the States they are assumed to be getting better.
I don’t know if that’s fully true; the lines between two such diverse countries are not as neat as such a statement would lead us to believe. It does lead us to a deeper truth, though. That getting help is not a sign of weakness; it’s a big step on a long and undulating road to recovery. In his book Depressive Illness: The Curse Of The Strong, Tim Cantopher points out that those of us who suffer such illnesses shouldn’t be thought of as weak. Quite the opposite. We’re people whose strength has been taken for granted, who have been too strong for too long without others being strong in return. It’s a helpful point; the decision to seek help is the beginning of strength’s recalibration, of re-ordering life around a new definition of strength, one which recognises where our strength ends and that of those around us needs to kick in.
A Christian might turn this around still further. The admission we need help is a chance for a greater strength to shine through; it’s the treasure-bearing jar of clay admitting it’s got chips and dents all over it; its how the light gets in. It’s a paradox, then, which expresses deep truth – that strength is found in admitting weakness; that seeking help – often done when we reach rock bottom – is the strongest thing we can do.
Side Effects is a diverting, entertaining film which serves more as a footnote to as opposed to the conclusion of its director’s career. It’s a mass of contradictions and paradoxes, of twists and turns, of strength and weakness. Much like me.
I rated this film 7/10 on imdb.com and 4/5 on rottentomatoes.com