We review Side Effects – A crafty and sexy, drug-fueled psychological thriller

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Somewhere out there lies a pile of dried paint brushes and blank canvases, still waiting for acclaimed indie-mainstream straddling auteur Steven Soderbergh to actually commit to his self proclaimed plans of painterly retirement. The American director seems to still be stuck behind the camera for some time, though it would seem that Side Effects would be his last theatrically released big studio effort (well at least for now).

And as his cinematic swan song, this cleverly scripted, genre hopping tale stands as a valid reflection and culmination of Soderbergh’s flitting past dalliances.

Side Effects is a movie where the less you know about it the better, so for those of you who haven’t seen it yet, and would like to go into it fresh, here’s what I have to say to you: It’s good. Rooney Mara delivers a particularly haunting performance, and Soderbergh shoots it with a polish that almost shines off the screen, while at the same time paying homage to some of the masters of the genre. Or genres, as it were, but more on that later.

And now you can scamper off, if you please.

For the rest of you though, don’t worry, I won’t be that guy and give away any major plot developments, but just know that if you glean anything from my review, it was not intentional.

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Collaborating once again with his Contagion writer, Scott Z. Burns, Soderbergh kicks off Side Effects in a pure human drama mode. We meet Mara’s Emily Taylor, a suicidal depressive, struggling to cope with reality after hers was severely rewritten four years previously when her then highly successful and wealthy husband, Martin (Channing Tatum), was arrested for insider trading. Stripped of her luxurious lifestyle and income, Emily has been falling apart and not even Martin’s release from prison seems to help. Neither does the cornucopia of antidepressant drugs that she’s been on over the years.

And so after a particularly destructive manic depressive episode, Emily finds herself in the care of psychiatrist Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), an overworked, underpaid doctor just trying to support his in-between-jobs wife and stepson. With some advice from Emily’s previous psychiatrist, Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), Jonathan prescribes to Emily a new drug, Ablixa. But what initially seems like the miracle pill she has been looking for, soon results in a tragically violent “side effect” that could ruin both Emily and Jonathan’s lives for good.

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And so what began as an opinion piece on society’s reliance on pharmacological crutches and the medical industry’s over-prescribing of such “cures”, suddenly shirks its coat and gets dressed up as a tense legal thriller. Not for long though, as this quick-change act then morphs into a mystery procedural followed by a paranoid game of cat and mouse. And through it all, Soderbergh is on top form.

These are all elements that he’s touched on previously in his career; Hitchcockian paranoia (and film techniques, including variable focusing and an opening shot lifted right out of Psycho), slippery plots, social commentary. In Side Effects though, he’s thrown them all together in one box, wrapped up in gleaming, clinically clean visuals, and somehow made them all fit.

It also certainly doesn’t hurt that the entire cast, from Tatum’s good natured husband to Zeta-Jones’ suspicious doctor to Law’s dishevelled doctor turned sleuth, is up to the task of this chameleonic ambition. But it’s Mara who has the most asked of her dramatically, and she’s not definitely not left wanting as she turns in an intensely disquieting performance that proves that sometimes scenery chewing can also be done with one’s mouth closed.

 

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The film is not faultless though, as an eleventh hour reveal is just a little too elaborate, especially considering that most viewers would already have worked out the film’s serpentine plot for themselves by that stage. Characters also appear to be of only slight motivation, especially in light of where the narrative ends up in the third act. And for all Soderbergh’s social issues soapboxing in the beginning, he does promptly abandon that quest to elicit thought in favour of just entertaining.

But entertain it does, in a mature and measured approach that doesn’t treat its audience like magpies needing unnecessary flash and spectacle to hold their attention.

This may actually end up being Soderbergh’s last theatrical feature film for real, and his current dabbles in television may come to an end soon, but I still think its safe to say that he may have wasted his money on those paint brushes: he’s already making art.

Last Updated: May 30, 2013

Kervyn Cloete

A man of many passions - but very little sleep - I've been geeking out over movies, video games, comics, books, anime, TV series and lemon meringues as far back as I can remember. So show up for the geeky insight, stay for the delicious pastries.

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