Spellbinding suspense from the mercurial director Steven Soderbergh. Side Effects takes on the subject of Zoloft, Effexor, Prozac and other anti-depression drugs with Emily (Rooney Mara, riveting as a bag of nerves), a WASP narcissist who faults life for not being perfect to her. We care just enough however about Emily that when she greets her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) after four years in prison for insider trading, we’re in hope they can re-patch their once fruitful marriage. Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law, his best performance in a decade) is the compassionate, sympathetic psychiatrist who just happens to prescribe, or peddle, anti-depression drugs a little too heedlessly and is perhaps over-concerned with his latest patient Emily.
Scott Z. Burns, who also wrote “Contagion” for director Soderbergh, has fashioned sensationalized elements into a story that plays it everyday real. With the assist of Thomas Newman’s (“The Shawshank Redemption”) foreboding, shivery music score, you know something in this particular world of East Coast grey weather season as presented is off-tune. Our society is addicted to pills, it’s known as a quick-fix remedy to all life problems — as if a popped pill will present an anecdotal rainbow for disaffected people. There is more than a whiff of suggestion to that in Soderbergh’s film. But with Emily, in particular, her depression (the “hopelessness”) is courting acting-out rage.
The drugs do run afoul, one can argue without being definitely certain. Comprising the Hitchcockian theme of the wronged man who has to clear his name, Dr. Banks is burdened with a case that challenges his professional ethics. He can be a good man and claim responsibility for Emily’s rage, or he can lie to protect his authoritative reputation but would require to sink Emily permanently. Grown-up legalities are dramatized here. The blame could as well be directed at the newest (fictional) pharmaceutical drug on the market called Ablixa.
To tell you who are the good guys and bad guys in a Soderbergh film would be a disservice. They are sympathetically human, adversely inhuman, or diabolically human – but unassuming they all are. Also in the cast is Catherine Zeta-Jones (“Traffic”) as Emily’s former psychiatrist, Vinessa Shaw (“Big Miracle”) as the short-patience wife to Dr. Banks, Polly Draper as Emily’s equally depression-prone boss, and Michael Nathanson as a District Attorney who would rather not re-open a case following an initial decision.
Soderbergh announced he is retiring from motion picture directing to concentrate on stage plays, television, and “other areas.” This still sounds to me like hocus pocus, since his claims of frustration with the industry is not entirely valid – he is generally met with financial success and good to glowing reviews. I would guess he will only take a four year break, or something. In addition, he also confessed that he hates film critics, for vague reasons that I nevertheless understand. He gets blighted when he tries something new. For all the conventions-breaking (see “The Girlfriend Experience,” “Haywire”), sure, he doesn’t get enough recognition. Still, virtually all thoughtful film critics love him and love his movies.
For me, he is a maestro of the classical narrative mold that has stood out by tweaking formulas and expectations, and has found a distinctive visual style with color tints that reflect the interior habitat of his characters. Soderbergh, with “Side Effects” as a prime example, proves he is one of the last filmmakers that makes movies that actually makes sense.
105 Minutes. Rated R.
SUSPENSE / THINKING MAN’S THRILLER / WEEKEND EXCITEMENT
Film Cousins: “Repulsion” (1965); “Limitless” (2011); “Contagion” (2011); “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” (2011).