Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Screenplay by Scott Z. Burns
Jude Law, Rooney Mara, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Channing Tatum
How long is Side Effects? 106 minutes.
What is Side Effects rated? R for sexuality, nudity, violence, and language.
Steven Soderbergh goes out in style with classic-style thriller.
Steven Soderbergh has a range unlike most of his compatriots, and he doesn’t buy into the Hollywood bullshit. The man arguably began the indie film craze in the 1990s with sex lies and videotape, coaxed a good performance out of Jennifer Lopez in Out of Sight, dabbled in ensemble heist flicks with the Ocean’s franchise, and in the last year, has cinematically paid tribute to such varied and fascinating personae as Chippendale dancers and female MMA fighters. This weekend’s Side Effects is apparently his last film; he’s retiring from “cinema.” In a recent interview, he eloquently explained his frustration with making big movies, attracting talent, and the shift in the cultural significance of television. For a man with such impressive range, Soderbergh indicates he’s got his feet firmly on the ground. Most of his work adheres to the Classical Hollywood style, and Side Effects is no exception: it’s a complex but clean vignette in the key of Adrian Lyne.
Side Effects is the twisty story of Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara), a depressive young woman whose wealthy husband (Channing Tatum) has been in prison for insider trading. Upon his release, Emily begins to flounder. After a failed suicide attempt, she starts seeing Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), a psychiatrist who prescribes a new SSRI called Ablixa. Among Ablixa’s many side effects (dizziness, irritability, dry mouth, all of those enticing terms the announcers in drug adverts list soothingly as the camera pans through a serene emerald field or focuses on a woman happily enjoying a meal with her husband), one stands out: parasomnia, or sleepwalking. The fine print can be a real beast, particularly in the drug world. In a series of gentle but startling twists, it becomes clear Emily has fashioned herself quite a tangled web. Her former psychiatrist Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones) jumps into the fray, and before long, both doctors and patient are mired deeply in an ethical quagmire.
Overuse of antidepressants is a contentious topic in the medical community. Detractors of SSRIs and other variations of mood-altering drugs have declared these medications make patients feel “not themselves,” while proponents note that they simply even out misfiring brain chemicals. We are a culture of fast food, fast cars, and fast recovery – and what faster way to stop feeling a poisonous fog rolling through your head than to pop a pill? This is perhaps a cultural phenomenon unique to America; as Dr. Banks notes, in the UK it is assumed someone taking antidepressants is sick, but here in the U.S., it is assumed they are getting better.
Soderbergh subtly portrays Emily’s experiments with various drugs (Zoloft, Prozac, Wellbutrin, Effexor) with distorted reflections, mangled silhouettes, and gentle focus pulling. Emily can’t see herself in her own reflection, whether in the soaring glass wall of a Wall Street gala or in the bathroom at her job. Her face is not her own. The question, formed subtly in imagery and then unambiguously in plot, is whether the prescription drugs, piled one on top of another to patch her rapidly fraying mental state, distort and detach her, or if she isn’t at all what she seems.
An early review called Side Effects a “pharmaceutical thriller,” and while catchy, that’s a bit of a misnomer. Although Soderbergh cites Fatal Attraction as inspiration and Side Effects does indeed utilize the sketchy nature of Big Pharma, it’s a clean psychological drama with hints of other genres: there’s a little bit of Psycho in the final reveal, and more than a touch of Rosemary’s Baby in Thomas Newman’s lilting score. It offers a bit of murder mystery a la Dial M for Murder, and a healthy dose of femme fatale. Its intrigue is perhaps a bit too complex; it’ll take you a few moments to sort out what’s actually happening. The screenplay by Scott Z. Burns, a frequent Soderbergh collaborator, is subtle, intelligent, slightly hypnotic; when secrets begin to bubble to the surface, you’re left feeling a little dumbfounded.
Rooney Mara’s standout but tiny performance in The Social Network impressed David Fincher so much he cast her in the American version of the Swedish Millenium series. She proved a chameleon able to more than hold her own against Daniel Craig, Robin Wright, and Stellan Skarsgaard. Emily Taylor has a touch of Lisbeth Salander, a veiled fragility tinged with psychosis and startling intelligence. Mara’s talent is in her ability to play tough and delicate in tandem. In Side Effects Mara again holds an entire film on her shoulders, outshining veterans Jude Law and Catherine Zeta-Jones; the Hollywood standbys are more than adequate, but neither puts in a breakthrough performance.
On a long trip over the holidays, I listened to the audiobook of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, a distinctly American murder mystery gone awry. By the time I reached my destination, halfway through the book, I was absolutely certain whodunit. By the time I returned home a week later after finishing the tale, I felt like I’d been sucker-punched by the novel’s series of sudden twists. Side Effects isn’t quite as shocking or astonishing, but the numerous plot corkscrews and loop-de-loops may leave you feeling a bit tired. Soderbergh prefers ambiguity over pandering, and something tells me if critics have problems with the complexity of plot, he’d respond like this.
The film opens with a long, Hitchcockian zoom into an apartment building; it closes on a slow zoom out from the window of a mental institution, neatly shutting the metaphorical window. Ambiguity be damned, this is what you get. Soderbergh, says a friend and collaborator in the Vulture interview, favors style over substance. That can certainly be said about Side Effects. Stylistically it’s a classic, well-made Hollywood psychological thriller. It lacks a bit of the depth and substance you might wish for, but if you’re in the mood for something smart, clean, and thought-provoking, it’s just the remedy.