Director: Steven Soderbergh
Writer: Scott Z. Burns
Stars: Rooney Mara, Jude Law, Channing Tatum, Catherine Zeta-Jones
Release date: February 8th, 2013
Distributor: Open Road Films
Running time: 106 minutes
Best part: Soderbergh’s direction.
Worst part: Cartoonish supporting characters.
It’s ironic that acclaimed director Steven Soderbergh has made several movies about drugs, because his filmography is startlingly addictive. Soderbergh has made some of the best movies of the past two decades. His filmography features such hits as Out of Sight, Traffic, The Ocean’s trilogy, The Informant! and Erin Brockovich. Side Effects is his last feature film. Thankfully, his swan song may be one of the most intelligent films of his career.
Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) is a sweet, young woman. She has waited four years for her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) to be released from prison. Unfortunately, she is struck down by her long-term bi-polar disorder. Her shaky mental state causes a failed suicide attempt. Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) is assigned to treat her on-going and dangerous condition. He prescribes Emily a new drug called Ablixa, recommended by Emily’s former psychiatrist Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones). The drug seems to work wonders for Emily. That is until the side effects kick in. She begins to sleepwalk incessantly around the house. Her erratic behaviour suddenly, and violently, transforms Emily into a legal nightmare for Dr. Banks. His life soon begins to fall apart. Having lost everyone’s trust, he becomes obsessed with discovering the real cause of Emily’s condition.
Soderbergh has a very distinctive and experimental style. He can fleetingly go from a mainstream production with a huge ensemble cast, to an indie flick with porn star Sasha Grey in the lead role (The Girlfriend Experience). He creates temperate character studies instead of typical Hollywood fodder. He will cap off his screen career with Behind the Candelabra, a Liberace biopic for HBO starring Matt Damon and Michael Douglas. Afterwards, he will focus on painting and directing plays. He will be sorely missed. His latest film is an eclectic mix of influences and trademark flourishes. Soderbergh instantaneously flips the narrative; turning this sensitive character study into a Sex, lies and Videotape/Les Diaboliques-style drama, and then into a legal/journalistic thriller in the vein of Michael Clayton and Zodiac. Every twist and turn hits with a knock-out punch as egos and motivations are tested. However, some of the third act plot twists are a bit hokey. An adjective that is thrown around way too often is ‘Hitchcockian’ (thanks for nothing, Brian de Palma!) I will say, however, that the term fits Side Effects like a glove. From the opening shot of a bleak cityscape, you can pinpoint winks and nudges to such Hitchcock films as Psycho, Vertigo and Dial M for Murder. Soderbergh, much like Hitchcock, has a visual style that places him above other prominent directors. It’s very easy to identify his cool and moody style. He is a true A-list artist that is known to play with indie film-making sensibilities.
Soderbergh, much like Hitchcock, has a visual style that places him above other prominent directors. It’s very easy to identify his cool and moody style. He is a true A-list artist that is known to play with indie film-making sensibilities. Nowadays, it’s hard to find directors with a taste for creating visual flourishes. His camera angles and movements, for example, are both unique and indelible. With just a few distinctive shots, he can make likeable characters seem peculiar. His use of depth of field is another important aspect of his direction. The camera comes in and out of focus at odd points, putting pressure on the viewer without using excessive force. His colour-coded scenes also paint an emotionally charged picture. His earthy and unsettling green and yellow tones (prevalent in many of his films) bring every scene and situation down to a real world level. His touch is not just in the visuals. The swift editing and pulsating jazz/electronica score help to create a cracking pace for this low key, atmospheric thriller. Soderbergh is certainly an opinionated director. Throughout his career, he has discussed many important issues (world-wide panic, economic crisis etc.). Traffic delved into the US/Mexico drug trade whilst Contagion, written by Side Effects writer Scott Z. Burns, depicted a world-wide epidemic. Side Effects, on the other hand, explores Soderbergh’s stance against prescription drugs and pharmaceutical companies.
“I won’t be able to tell the truth if I take anymore pills.” (Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara), Side Effects).
In the first act, Soderbergh and Burns objectively and meticulously set up the conflict. Ever so slowly, however, the film turns into an all-out assault on America’s most profitable drug companies. It becomes an in-depth examination of pharmaceutical industry wheeling and dealing. Dr. Banks and his colleagues almost become drug dealers, dishing out meds for a quick and hefty profit. This film thrives on its winning performances and intensifying characters. Mara continues her scorching run after the American remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. She conveys the full range of mental and emotional states, becoming a true Hitchcockian lead character. Her china doll look is in stark contrast to her failing mental and moral state. Law gives a passionate performance as a sympathetic man on the edge in more ways than one. Scarily determined to find the truth, Dr. Banks’ search for answers is a neo-noir-like race against time and injustice. Tatum, capping off his ‘Soderbergh hat-trick’ after Haywire and Magic Mike, impresses in a small yet dignified role. Unfortunately, Zeta-Jones delivers an unconvincing performance as a vindictive she-devil. Sporting more make-up than the Joker, she hams it up to a cartoonish extent. Many of the supporting characters are one note. Dr. Banks’ wife, for example, is nothing but a shrill obstacle. Their relationship is just too shaky to be believable.
Whether you like it or not, Soderbergh has closed the curtain on his film-making career. In my opinion, he couldn’t have done a better job. Warning: Side Effects may lead to multiple viewings and an addiction to Soderbergh’s previous works. With a stellar cast and dynamite narrative in tow, Side Effects varies between mesmerising and upsetting. Ironic, really.