Side Effects (2013)
Starring Jude Law, Rooney Mara, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Channing Tatum
Written by Scott Burns
Music by Tomas Newman
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Steven Soderbergh has been one of the most, if not the most prolific director of the last two decades. Although I’m not a particularly big fan of his work there is no debate as to the fact he is one of the most driven filmmakers in Hollywood. He’s successfully walked a fine line between appeasing general audiences with such mainstream fare as the Ocean’s trilogy, Magic Mike and Contagion while also pushing his independent artistic envelope with experimental works such as Bubble, Full Frontal and The Girlfriend Experience. Soderbergh recently stated his intention to retire from filmmaking after his latest works, his Liberace biopic for HBO “Behind the Candelabra” and the pharmaceutical thriller Side Effects. With Side Effects being Soderbergh’s supposed swansong, he has crafted an engaging dramatic mystery that wears its Hitchcockian-inspired visuals and narrative proudly on its sleeve while also reminding the audience that few filmmakers today can make psychological thrillers as effective as he can.
It’s difficult to talk about the narrative in Side Effects without spoiling the many twists and turns found within so I will attempt to be brief. The film begins as Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) is awaiting the release of her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) from prison after serving a four year sentence for insider trading. Upon his release, Emily begins suffering from depression and begins treatment from Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), a psychiatrist who introduces Emily to a series of prescription drugs to cope with her illness. As Emily’s world begins to unravel from within, Dr. Banks prescribes a new drug after consulting with Emily’s prior doctor (Catherine Zeta-Jones) which leads to unexpected side effects that will change the lives of all involved.
Side Effects never reveals what film it’s trying to be until the last act. Is it a medical/crime drama, a moody character piece, or weighty message drama that screams Pharma-companies are bad? The answer is none of the above, which may lead some viewers to wrongly interpret Side Effects as a muddled who-dun-it that doesn’t really know what it wants to be. I believe this was Soderbergh’s intention as he didn’t want to make a simple mystery film, but one that lets the viewer experience the narrative as his protagonist does. Disguising the film thematically allowed him to surprise the audience with many shocking moments that seemingly come out of left field but ultimately link up to create a taut and effective mystery thriller.
As with his previous works, Soderbergh gets every ounce of talent out of the actors involved, with Jude Law being the most effective. His Dr. Banks is a character that you would find in the kind of films Soderbergh is emulating. At first he is merely a supporting character who eventually discovers things are not entirely as they seem. Law is convincing and has no trouble changing gears between accentuating the performances of his co-stars to outright grabbing the focus of the film in the second act as his professional and personal life begin to crumble. Rooney Mara once again demonstrates why she was chosen to Americanize the character of Lizbeth Salendar in the remake of The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo. Her ability to transition seamlessly from emotion to emotion in the same scene is a rare talent that is used effectively in her dramatic moments with Tatum and Law. That being said, Tatum and Zeta-Jones are fine in their respective roles and make the most of what is called for, but since Side Effects is centrally focused on Emily and Dr. Banks, the secondary roles are by nature forgettable.
Like his previous works, there is an intentional plainness to the look of Side Effects with the exception of a few visual cues that harken back to the old noir films of the 50’s and 60’s. This is ever present in the beginning as a slow moving pan through a condo instantly establishes atmospheric tension that remains for nearly the film’s entire running time. Unbeknownst to most casual viewers is the fact that Steven Soderbergh shoots and edits his own films under a pair of pseudonyms, which is of course why his features all have a distinct feel. Also, the minimalist approach taken by Thomas Newman’s score effectively maintains the visual rhythm without taking attention away from the narrative or performances.
Side Effects is an effective mystery that slowly pulls its viewer in and rewards their patience and should be a delight for Hitchcock fans and lovers of old crime/noir stories. It’s fair to say that Soderbergh has made superior films, but should not be a deterrent to seeing Side Effects. If anything, you may be watching a masterful filmmaker engage your cinematic intelligence for one last time.