‘Side Effects’ Review
Press screenings of Steven Soderbergh‘s ‘Side Effects‘ — supposedly the director’s final theatrical film before his self-imposed retirement — were carefully monitored for latecomers. Stragglers who arrived after the screening began were greeted by signs like this one, reading that “due to the non-linear nature of this film, it would be unrewarding for you to enter at this point.” This sort of thing is fairly unprecedented at press screenings (at least in my 10 or so years of experience), but they do resemble warnings that were placed outside theaters back in 1960, when what would become one of the most famous movies in Hollywood history was released to theaters — a knowing wink from “The Filmmakers,” as they signed their note, indicating their inspiration in this endeavor. That inspiration can be found here — but be warned that clicking that link could probably be considered a spoiler.
Actually, there’s a lot to spoil in ‘Side Effects,’ a deeply satisfying thriller with a lot on its mind and on its plate. After people see it, they’ll want to talk about its myriad plot twists and connections to classic films. But right now, if you’re interested in this movie — and in the idea of Soderbergh and ‘The Informant!’ and ‘Contagion’ writer Scott Z. Burns taking on the genre of the psychological thriller — my advice would simply be to take it on faith that ‘Side Effects’ is worth your time, read nothing more about the film, and go in completely cold. Entering with knowledge about what’s going to happen could be just as unrewarding as coming in late.
If you don’t want to take my advice — or you don’t care about spoilers — I’ll give you a bit more detail. ‘Side Effects” protagonists are a young married couple, Emily (Rooney Mara) and Martin (Channing Tatum). He is freshly released from prison on a sentence for insider trading; she is happy to have her husband home but inexplicably depressed. Even as Martin gets their lives back on track, Emily’s mental state continues to deteriorate. Eventually, she tries to commit suicide.
At the hospital, her case is assigned to a local psychiatrist, Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), who allows Emily to avoid a trip to a mental hospital on the condition that she come visit him at his office for regular therapy sessions. Dr. Banks tries to help Emily with a variety of pharmacological solutions, including an experimental drug Dr. Banks has agreed to give to some of his patients in exchange for a hefty consultancy. This new drug, named Ablixa, carries some strange side effects. And after she’s taken it for a while, Emily commits a shocking act she never would have done without it.
From there, ‘Side Effects’ proceeds through some delightfully unforeseeable plot twists — although they all do bear a certain superficial similarity to that 50-year-old classic that seems to give Soderbergh and Burns their loose model, if not their outright inspiration. While the film isn’t quite the searing indictment of our modern world of antidepressants it first appears to be, Soderbergh and Burns nevertheless find plenty of room to tweak the prevalence of these drugs and the absurdity of their ad campaigns. There are also some very good performances, particularly from Mara as an emotionally unsettled woman and from Law as her doctor, who has no idea what he’s in for when he takes her on as a patient.
Soderbergh balances all these elements with the skill of a master. Suspense, surprise, social commentary, acting, camerawork, editing — at this point, he’s achieved something like total command of the cinematic form; watch, for example, the scene where Dr. Banks and his family sit eating a meal while the nearby television drowns out his wife’s conversation because all Banks can think about are the developments in Emily’s case. No wordy exposition, no one unnaturally explaining how they feel; just a few carefully selected shots and an ingenious bit of sound design.
At one point in the film, a character is told that depression is “the inability to construct a future.” In movies, it’s the opposite. The cloudier and more unpredictable the end of a movie the better, and from its first scenes, it’s impossible to guess where ‘Side Effects’ will go from one moment to the next. It’s simply a brilliant thriller, made by a filmmaker at the top of his game — so much so that it’s hard to imagine someone who could make something this good wanting to retire immediately afterwards. But maybe ‘Side Effects’ proves why Soderbergh’s retiring: at this point, it’s too easy for him. He certainly makes it look effortless here.
‘Side Effects’ premieres Friday, February 8 with an initial release on February 7.
Matt Singer is a Webby award winning writer and podcaster. He currently runs the Criticwire blog on Indiewire and co-hosts the Filmspotting: Streaming Video Unit podcast. His criticism has appeared in the pages of The Village Voice and Time Out New York and on ‘Ebert Presents at the Movies.’ He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, dog, and a prop sword from the movie ‘Gymkata.’