Thomas Newman’s score for Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects is a peculiar thing. It sounds more like the soundtrack for a fantasy film, something with monsters and magic, and not the kind of thing you’d expect to hear in a psychological thriller. The intention behind the ethereal, fantastical music is difficult to judge. Any two people may formulate different readings because of it, and those two people may even come away from Side Effects feeling they watched two different films.
Perhaps one of them watched a Hitchcockian thriller. Hitchcock was often concerned with dreams and delusion, and Newman’s score endows Side Effects with a dream-like, delusionary quality. The plot certainly wouldn’t be out of place in Hitch’s back catalogue. Side Effects is a skewed murder mystery which asks if Rooney Mara’s Emily – who had been prescribed a new antidepressant – had lethal intent when she stabbed her husband (Channing Tatum).
The film then performs that very Hitchcockian trick of switching protagonists on us. We shift from Emily to Jude Law’s Dr. Banks, the psychiatrist who prescribed Emily the drugs. Banks finds himself in a bind: either Emily’s actions were influenced by the drugs, in which case Banks could be held responsible; or she was in full control and meant to kill her husband, in which case why didn’t Banks see the warning signs in his patient? And so Banks begins digging, both into Emily’s background and into the drug she was on, in order to exonerate himself.
Somebody else, however, might see something akin to a fairy tale, a modern morality play on the dangers of over-medication. Newman’s score lends Side Effects an unreality that couches its plot in the self-serving logic of a cautionary tale, the kind of logic that falls apart on closer scrutiny, and so isn’t supposed to be scrutinised. It makes the film a sort of Aesop’s fable for the age of pills and quick diagnoses.
That said, Side Effects is not really concerned with the wider issues it touches. This is not The Constant Gardener; the film doesn’t rail against Big Pharma in any meaningful way. Like many fairy tales, Side Effects deals with its issues only insofar as they affect its own characters, and asks us to draw our own conclusions about these issues in the real world. After all, Little Red Hood doesn’t tell us that all wolves are bad. Just the talking ones that eat grandmothers.