With a cold open of an apartment floor spattered with blood and deep red footprints, Side Effects starts with the air of mystery and intrigue it keeps throughout.
Without giving away too much, Side Effects revolves around a group of people, both patients and doctors, in the psychiatric world and the dangerous possibilities that foreseen or unforeseen side effects can bring about. This is a psychological thriller that deals in money, sex, lies and (pharmaceutical) drugs. Much like many police procedurals with which it shares its style, Side Effects hinges on that oh so ambiguous thing: the truth. When a course of anti-depressants leads to horrific consequences for Emily (Rooney Mara), her doctor (Jude Law) sets on to unravel the mystery of just what happened on a fateful night between her and her husband. More importantly, with his reputation and sense of justice on the line, he pursues why it happened.
The two leads (Mara and Law) elevate what could potentially have descended into one of those convoluted daytime TV movies. Jude Law gives his Dr Banks a pure heart and develops a truly compelling sense of righteousness that would leave only the most cynical not on his side, which makes some later developments for him all the more a difficult pill to swallow. On the flip side, Mara shows off her true range here. We've seen her as an everyday sort of girl in her bit part in The Social Network and the volatilely broken Lisbeth in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. In Side Effects she shows off a number of sides. From her all too believable state through the depression as a timid and injured soul to scenes where she is anything but (to say any more would give away too much), Mara is enthralling throughout.
Side Effects is quite a wild ride with twists and turns... once it gets going. For the first forty-ish minutes you're kind of left wondering where everything is going and although there are one or two interesting characters, they're not doing much, rather that things are just happening. Getting past that first act, something happens that makes you retro-actively appreciate everything that happened. It's a bit of a mis-step in that I would really have preferred to enjoy it as it was happening but being able to look back and think "Damn that was clever". As it stands, the first act is a lot more like looking at a sad painting instead of watching a film, which is great if you're into character studies like me, but it's not why a lot of people watch films. That said, do stick with it. If you like complicated mysteries that flip and flop and have people playing off each other in a vortex of angles, you'll love the last two thirds of Side Effects.
Gotta say though (ending spoilers) the ending is very much bittersweet... Actually no, it's just bitter. This character you've been rooting for pretty much the whole time pulls a massive dick move. I'm not saying it's not justified, but considering their motivations all the way through, the exact type of resolution seems particularly cruel.