A film review by Craig J. Koban February 12, 2013


2013, R, 105 mins.

Emily: Rooney Mara / Dr. Banks: Jude Law / Martin: Channing Tatum / Dr. Siebert: Catherine Zeta-Jones / Kayla: Mamie Gummer / Dierdre: Vinessa Shaw

Directed by Steven Soderbergh / Written by Scott Z. Burns.

I think that if SIDE EFFECTS were directed by just about anyone else besides Steven Soderbergh than it would not have worked as well as it does.  Channeling the finest of Hitchcockian thrillers like PSYCHO, DIAL M FOR MURDER, and NORTH BY NORTHWEST, Soderbergh creates a taut, fiendishly clever, and sleekly well crafted murder/mystery courtroom thriller that shows him in complete command of his filmmaking prowess.  At face value, the overall story of SIDE EFFECTS is luridly overwrought and oftentimes devolves into many head-scratching plot twists, but it’s a testament to Soderbergh’s skills as a director to create a level of grounded credibility amidst all of the film's narrative craziness.  

Filming a script from Scott Z. Burns, Soderbergh’s final film (more on that in a bit) was kind of advertised as a one thing, gives us just that in its opening sections, and then slowly but surely does an about-face and morphs into something altogether different.  It’s difficult to describe precisely what I mean without engaging in massive plot spoilers, but let’s just say that we initially get a story involving medical ethics, the dangers of overmedication, and a trial that then segues into a morally murky, twisted, and dread-infused noir-thriller where the true motivations of just about everyone are questionable.  Hitchcockian DNA is all over SIDE EFFECTS, especially in its latter half, but Soderbergh is accomplished enough as a real soulful auteur to still make the film refreshingly all his own. 

Like PSYCHO, Soderbergh opens the film with cold precision in long dolly shots of high-rise buildings and then finally through a Manhattan window, where his camera casually, but ominously, lingers on what appears to be a murder crime scene.  The film then flashes back in time a few months by introducing us to a troubled 28-year-old woman named Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara), who is awaiting the releases of her husband, Martin (Channing Tatum) from prison, where he has been serving a semi-lengthy sentence for the crime of insider trading.  When he is finally released, both are overcome with elation, but things then get a little…odd.  Emily becomes emotionally guarded and then depressed.  One day, while almost in a tear-induced trance, she drives her car head-on into a concrete wall. 



She makes it out of her accident with only minor injuries, but mentally she seems scarred.  She begins to see a therapist, Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), a seemingly good, caring, and kind-hearted man that simultaneously seems interested in more than just his patients.  After consulting with her former therapist, Erica Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), Jonathon begins to prescribe to Emily – after a series of other anti-depressants fail to work – a new experimental drug called Ablixa, which is being heralded by its makers as the ultimate cure-all for clinical depression.  Jonathon is also coaxed into prescribing the new drug largely because the manufacturer offers him an exclusive and financially lucrative deal to engage in test study of it on Emily.  At first, the medication seems okay, but Emily then begins to develop some alarming side effects, like chronic sleepwalking.  She then - apparently against her conscious will - commits a hellish act while under the drug’s spell and is brought up on charges of murder.  

Hmmmm….just who or what is to blame here?  Was it really the drug that caused Emily to momentarily go nutso?  Moreover, should the monetarily motivated Jonathon be partially or fully blamed for given his patient a drug that he perhaps did not fully comprehend, partially in an effort to be compensated by its makers?  Or, are there some darker and more nefarious motivations at play her for all the parties involved?   Soderbergh has a field day tapping into the film’s labyrinthine and endlessly compelling themes of how patients are often the victims of medical professionals and the drug corporations that wish to get rich off of using them as guinea pigs.  Beyond that, the film also immerses itself in the palpable paranoia of how modern culture seems to methodically medicate itself with a litany of anti-depressant and anti-anxiety drugs first before using any other cognitive therapy.  The film leaves us asking one question: what’s more chilling, our society’s overdependence on mood-altering medications or the companies and doctors that hand them out like candy to potentially burdensome patients to pad their own wallets? 

Yet, SIDE EFFECTS moves abruptly away from all of this fervently gripping material and then becomes – again, without given too much away – a jigsaw-puzzle-like dissection of the obsessive and fanatical drives of one character to prove  innocence when all others assume guilt (a classic Hitchcockian conceit: the innocent man wrongly accused).  The way that Soderbergh shrewdly and cunningly traverses away from a medical-mystery story about the multi-billion dollar anti-depressant industry and their potential malfeasance and then dives brazenly headfirst into a suspenseful genre thriller of twists and double-crosses upon double-crosses is kind of a thankless feat.   And, yes, not all of the late-breaking betrayals and plot twists are all that convincing, but by this time its doesn’t matter because Soderbergh has already hypnotically snared us in without letting go.  There just reached a point in the film where I became willing to go all the way down the story’s rabbit hole of seedy absurdity. 

It for sure helps that the performances hit all the right notes here.  Rooney Mara, in her first starring role since her Oscar nominated work in the U.S. remake of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, has a very difficult task here of authentically evoking a woman of crippling medical and emotional illness while showing other, shall we say, distressing sides to her personality.  She’s the glue that holds the whole enterprise together, alongside Law’s stellar work as the somewhat duplicitous therapist that does indeed care for his patients even when he seems propelled by other less-than altruistic motives.  Channing Tatum, a recent go-to actor for Soderbergh, seems a bit more relaxed and natural under the director’s hands than while otherwise working with other filmmakers.  Catherine Zeta-Jones drums up low-key sex appeal and authoritative sternness in a tricky role that demands that she does not overtly telegraph her loyalties and intentions. 

Much has been said of SIDE EFFECTS being the 50-year-old Soderbergh’s last theatrically directed film.  Firstly, that’s a crying shame.  Secondly, he’s at least leaving us with a series of final films on his superlative resume that are all ingeniously unlike the ones that preceded it; they also speak to his legendary eclectic tastes and his unbridled yearning to subvert fairly routine formulas and genres by injecting in his own highly unique and unparalleled sense of style.  Just consider his last few: the pandemic thriller CONTAGION; the spy-espionage action film HAYWIRE; the male-stripper expose MAGIC MIKE; the reality-based stool-pigeon dramedy THE INFORMANT!; and now SIDE EFFECTS.  Oh, and he also made SEX, LIES, AND VIDEOTAPE, OUT OF SIGHT, and TRAFFIC to name a few others.  Not a bad career, Stevie…ya done good!

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