Side Effects is cinematic sleight of hand. It’s a beguiling performance from the movie magician; the great Steven Soderbergh. It feints at being a story about the questionable practices of the pharmaceutical industry; it’s not. Early scenes drift elliptically through Emily (Rooney Mara)’s life; she seems depressed, and she seems to be the film’s protagonist. She isn’t.
Side Effects is built on deception, but it always plays fair; anyone paying attention shouldn’t be surprised by the narrative twists and turns that dominate the film’s last half as dark secrets are uncovered. The opening shots are a significant hint, panning across an ordinary-looking apartment building before venturing inside to reveal the bloodstains within.
Later, a woman complains at a prison guard’s insistence on opening her gift’s wrapping to examine it. Soderbergh isn’t content to let you unwrap the present. He’ll unwrap it for you. It’s for the best. He knows what he’s doing.
This film –best described as a thriller, though it’s more seductive than thrilling – works because of the details. The careful, soft cinematography, ominous score and brief lines of dialogue – “a poisonous gas cloud” – are observed with the deftness of a true showman. Pay close attention.