A film review by Craig J. Koban February 12, 2013
2013, R, 105 mins.
2013, R, 105 mins.
Dr. Banks: Jude
Dr. Siebert: Catherine
Kayla: Mamie Gummer /
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
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
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.
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.
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
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?
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.
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
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!