“Out, damn’d spot! out, I say! – One; two: why, then ‘tis time to do’t.”
Female hysteria (from Latin: ‘of the womb’) was around long before Rome fell, but it was Lady Macbeth cleansing her hands of imaginary blood who showed us how frenzy manifests itself both inside and out. It’s most certainly a trope that Steven Soderbergh explores in Side Effects, which starts with a tracking shot of blood in an New York apartment before cutting back to a scene in which Emily (Rooney Mara) visits husband Martin (Channing Tatum) prior to his release from prison for insider trading.
Cue Martin’s return to civilian life, and Emily’s descent into depression as she struggles to re-establish trophy couple status on a limited budget. She knows depression, as we learn when she comes to the attention of a Manhattan shrink following an apparent suicide attempt.
Banks (Jude Law), a well-intentioned but prescription-happy psychiatrist under some lifestyle pressure of his own, starts her on an antidepressant that he’s testing for the manufacturers. Soon enough, Emily is manifesting some of the nastier side effects from the small print on the patient information leaflet – the kind that spell bad news for one’s nearest and dearest.
Soderbergh sets up the pharmaceuticals industry within the kind of matrix that worked so well in The Informant and Traffic. Emily’s desperation is a picture-perfect expression of what we assume to be the demons raging within this delicate femme fatale, the flawed but sympathetic doctor’s susceptibility to her anguish is credible and the pill-popping a convenient panacea. And bingo, Soderbergh seems up for nailing another socioeconomic bogeyman.
But when Banks finds his cherished livelihood on the line, suspicions of a different kind are roused. The process of mutual psycho-baiting between patient and doctor cranks up a gear and a new kind of tension kicks in.
Despite alluding successfully to Hitchcock’s Vertigo (and the inferior Spellbound), Soderbergh doesn’t quite manage to show a woman in conflict less with medical malpractice than with the ambitious men who tolerate its consequences, smudging the issue with cinematographic brouhaha, patchy characterization and a slightly anticlimactic ending.
He’s upped the ante, though, for this much-publicized swansong whose failings are prettily honourable – and likely to be rewarded with enough box office success to justify a comeback.
Side Effects | Directed by Steven Soderbergh (USA 2013) with Rooney Mara, Channing Tatum, Jude Law. Starts April 25