- Movie Rating -

Side Effects (2013)

| February 25, 2013 | 0 Comments

Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects doesn’t ask you to pay attention to the details because the movie is so brilliantly constructed that you find yourself doing that involuntarily.  His camera is generous in allowing us to remember things, tiny things in the corners.  We take in details as our eyes unconsciously scan the frame.  We notice name plates, medicine bottles, logos; we hear seemingly unimportant pieces of dialogue, and it all pays off in film’s third act.  The result is a clever and devious film that appears to be one thing and then turns on us in a way that makes us feel smart.

The movie opens with a very sad woman, a dowdy 28 year-old married woman named Emily (Rooney Mara) who is suffering from depression.  Her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) has just been released from a four-year prison stretch for insider trading.  He’s happy to see her, and that night they make passionate love.  The look on her face during sex, however, is less-than orgasmic.

Later, her depression leads her to drive her car into the wall at a parking garage.  She survives the crash and falls under the care of Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), a good-hearted psychiatric doctor who immediately sizes up the situation when he tells her that there were no skid marks on the pavement – this was deliberate.  He puts her on medication to no avail; later she is just about to step in front of an oncoming subway train before being saved by a policeman.

Dr. Banks decides that the drugs aren’t working and after talking to her psychiatrist Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones) prescribes her an experimental new anti-depressant called Ablixa, which he has been paid a lot of money to study.  We come to discover that Dr. Banks is the kind of doctor who prefers pills over real treatment.

The Abixa causes Emily to sleepwalk, and eventually causes her to commit murder.  Was her violent outburst caused by the drug?  Were there other factors?  Who was involved?  Is Dr. Banks at fault for having given her the drug?  If so, how much of the blame falls on him?  As his professional and personal begin to fall apart, we can’t feel sorry for him.  He gave her the drug.  He is at fault, even as he keeps digging for clues.

What is tricky about Side Effects is the way in which we think we’re focusing on one character, and then the shift focuses to another until we realize that we’re in the midst of a bucket of possible conspiracies and red herrings (or are we?)  What is amazing is how well put together the film is.  For a long time we think we’re in the midst of a commentary on how drug companies destroy patients in the name of huge profit.  As the plot settles in, we realize that we are really watching another story entirely.  By the end, the movie has completely turned on us with the kind of plot-twists and turns that Hitchcock use to dream up.

Performances are key here; especially Rooney Mara who abandons all traces of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and plays Emily as an insulated woman who hides behind a mop of brown hair and down-turned eyes.  It is only when the movie is over that we realize what a superb juggling act her performance is.  The same goes for Jude Law as a doctor who is not all saintly veneer.  At first, we think we’re looking at your standard goody-goody movie doctor until we get an interview in which he admits that he left his native Britain because there a patient getting psychiatric treatments may be assumed to be getting sicker.  Here it is thought that they are getting well.  His pill-pushing attitude puts him in hot water when Emily’s symptoms cause someone’s death.  It is fascinating to watch him duck and dodge to get out from under the blanket of responsibility.

Steven Soderbergh has been working in films for 25 years, ever since his breakthrough with sex, lies and videotape back in 1989.  He is a born filmmaker who works mostly in the area of crime, sex, and murder and here he outdoes himself with a twisty narrative that runs completely on logic.  He recently announced that he is retiring from filmmaking to concentrate on his painting.  If this is, indeed, his last film then he is leaving us with something that Hitchcock would have been proud of.  He plays us like a violin, and the music is fine-tuned.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.