Published on: February 24, 2013
One must admire the career of Stephen Soderbergh. Starting with his daring debut Sex, Lies, and Videotape in 1989, he has made no fewer than 25 films. As prolific as Hitchcock in his American years, but more willing to explore different genres, Soderbergh has made a name for himself with a wide array of films, including Best Picture winner Traffic, the mainstream hit Ocean’s Eleven and the subsequent sequels, and the massive, brilliant four and a half hour biopic Che. With Side Effects we see him retreating into the pseudo-fictional corner of human psychology that he explored, albeit a little more messily, with 2011’s Contagion. In it we find fictional characters dealing with a fictional anti-depressant drug, but in a modern world and in a situation that could easily occur within the parameters of our society.
Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) is a 28-year old woman whose husband Martin (Channing Tatum) was just released from prison after serving a four-year sentence for insider trading. Emily is depressed and, after a suicide attempt, goes to see Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), who prescribes her several medications, which prove ineffective. Soon, at the recommendation of her previous therapist Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), Emily goes on Ablixa, a new anti-depressant that has been heavily advertised lately, and experiences episodes of sleepwalking. Martin comes home during one such episode and Emily stabs him several times with a kitchen knife, killing him, after which she returns to bed.
Emily goes through a lawsuit, with most everybody in her life on her side. She is pronounced not guilty due to insanity, but is forced to stay in a psychiatric hospital for a while under Dr. Banks’ care. During the process, Dr. Banks’ life begins to unravel both as the press blames him for the incident, and as he becomes obsessed with the notion that Emily and Dr. Siebert planned the killing.
It’s hard to come up with a general formula for a good psychological thriller. I find that, most often, good thrillers are built on the premise that there is some greater underlying reasoning to what is going on, that nothing can be purely coincidental or taken for granted. What a screenwriter does with that concept, though, is entirely individual. Take, for instance, the wonderfully entertaining science fiction thriller Source Code from a couple years ago. The protagonist’s job was to look at the same period of time over and over again, to try to figure out the cause of a fatal explosion. In that case, it was apparent to the audience that every detail mattered. Contrarily, Soderbergh and writer Scott Z. Burns do not give us the benefit of looking at the situation over and over again, nor do they give us much evidence in the situation itself. Dr. Banks becomes a detective of sorts, but a detective in a case in which he is not even sure there is a mystery to be solved. Much like The Usual Suspects, the audience should understand that what is more important is what is not shown.
Of course, regardless of what the plot line is, films with twists and turns necessitate casts that are up to the challenge. The only actor about whom I was unsure before seeing Side Effects was Channing Tatum, and rightfully so; he’s about as interesting to watch as a hole in the ceiling, dripping lines like dull rainwater. Luckily, he dies quickly enough that he becomes a mere plot device, and is not quite as bothersome as usual. Besides, we’ve got Rooney Mara. Soderbergh’s camera loves her, and so do we. She walks the line between realistic and creepy very well, a blurred distinction complemented by veteran Thomas Newman’s fabulously dark and foreboding score. Jude Law remains his usual charismatic self, and he handles the shift of our sympathies from Emily to Dr. Banks in the second half of the film with surprising skill.
Don’t get me wrong, Side Effects is definitely not perfect. There are a couple of minor plot holes that are ultimately forgivable, but still noticeable. And then, of course, there’s Channing Tatum. However, this is still as exciting and thoughtful a cinematic experience as you’ll find at this point in the year.