The first clue comes in the opening shot of Side Effects — a slow, measured zoom into a window of a large apartment building that recalls such horror classics as Rosemary’s Baby and Psycho.
“I was kind of riffing on a couple of different movies there,” says Steven Soderbergh, who directed Side Effects. “But what drove it was the idea of something happening inside one of those apartments. When you look out over a landscape, you get overwhelmed by how many elements and buildings are competing for your attention, and little do you know that behind one of those little windows, something terrible could be happening. And I also wanted to bookend it with the last shot in the film. They match up nicely.”
Terrible things do happen in Side Effects, which opens Friday. But those awful bits of business shouldn’t be discussed before seeing the film. This is the kind of movie packed with so many plot twists and surprises that knowing too much in advance will ruin the fun. The basic premise is simple: A young woman named Emily (Rooney Mara) falls into a deep depression after her husband (Channing Tatum) is released from prison after serving time for insider trading. For help, she turns to a psychiatrist (Jude Law), who takes the advice of Emily’s previous doctor (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and puts Emily on an anti-anxiety medication that has just hit the market.
But the medicine has unforeseen side effects. Soderbergh says what happens next was inspired by the slick, A-list thrillers Hollywood cranked out in the 1980s.
“They used to make these movies pretty regularly and pretty well,” he says. “ Jagged Edge, Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct — there were a lot of good ones. And then they just stopped making them. I don’t know what happened to that genre. It just kind of disappeared.”
Soderbergh uses a light directorial touch in Side Effects — this is, first and foremost, an entertainment — but its subject matter is rooted in reality and research. Screenwriter Scott Z. Burns, who previously collaborated with Soderbergh on The Informant! and Contagion, spent a year at New York City’s Bellevue Hospital shadowing forensic psychiatric Dr. Sasha Bardey, who also served as a consultant on the film.
“I learned how different mental illnesses present themselves and psychopharmacology and the intersection of psychiatry and the law,” Burns says. “One thing I learned is that we go to doctors hoping it’s all going to be about making us feel better. But when you start researching this stuff, you realize it’s also about socioeconomics and insurance and pharmaceutical companies and a whole lot of other things.”
A lot of Side Effects is grounded in fact: The cases mentioned in the film in which people were exonerated of a crime because medications gave them an alibi are true. But the filmmakers used their research as a foundation for a thriller — not an exposé — that gets crazier and more unpredictable with every turn.
“What we wanted to create was a roller-coaster ride, but one that took place in a realistic landscape,” Burns says. “Dr. Bardey told us that when a patient appears in your office, you want to believe them and help them. And I started thinking about the interesting legal dilemma of people who start taking drugs like Xanax. Is their behavior really their own anymore? Or is the part of their brain that polices the morality of their behavior not sufficiently engaged to meet legal standards?”