Review: 'Side Effects' is a Solid, Potential Swan Song for Soderbergh
by Jeremy Kirk
February 8, 2013
Steven Soderbergh, the director who recently made you nervous to touch your hands to your face, is now scaring you from getting your prescriptions filled. Side Effects, his latest direction of a Scott Z. Burns screenplay - Burns also wrote Contagion - begins as a cautionary tale. "Be careful what your doctor prescribes and what it might do to you." But as the plots twists and turns reveal themselves, Side Effects reveals itself as a taut, alluring thriller. Though at times predictable, Soderbergh's direction transcends the film to something greater, a truly solid effort as the director's swan song, if you believe everything he says.
Rooney Mara stars as Emily Taylor, a woman whose husband, Channing Tatum, is recently released from incarceration for insider trading. Emily clearly isn't the happiest of working wives, and after she is hospitalized for an apparent suicide attempt, she meets a psychiatrist, Jude Law, who believes that through the proper medication, he can convince Emily's brain that she is no longer depressed. He prescribes to her a revolutionary new drug, one with many, potential side effects. The drug works, and Emily's "happiness in a pill" seems to have been found, but then those damn side effects start kicking in.
This is merely the setup in Burns' screenplay, events that take up about 30-40 minutes of actual screen time. It's from there, though, that Side Effects delves into the thriller that it really is, but much of that could be construed as spoiler territory. This is a prime example of a top-notch thriller, when it's difficult to even discuss what happens in the film's second act for fear of ruining major plot twists. And major plot twists, Side Effects has in abundance. You could almost set a minute watch by the amount of left turns and shocking revelations this screenplay takes, and it's no wonder that, though it plays much like a straightforward thriller, an auteur like Soderbergh wanted to get his crack at it.
He comes through like Steven Soderbergh and few others can here, his compositions a little on the nose but no less effective. He shoots every scene with the shallowest of focus, anything but what's right in the foreground hazed out and blurry. It's as if Soderbergh is showing us first hand the fuzzy world Emily lives in, the camera moving with exceptional fluidity. Much of what occurs feels like an extended dream sequence with all the lights glaring out and edges softened. All of this becomes window dressing, though, once the thriller element to Side Effects begins and the horror tale of what drugs could do subsides.
Soderbergh's influences are on full display here, most notably his evident love for Alfred Hitchcock and the way that artist's camera moved around the action as if hovering in the air. Hitchcock's camera work and composition isn't the only comparison one could make. Without giving too much away, an argument could be made that Burns holds films like Psycho, Dial M for Murder, and even North by Northwest in his arsenal of influences, as well. Leave it to Soderbergh to take the Hitchcock approach and run with it while injecting his own styles and trademarks into the piece.
Another key Soderbergh trait is in the acting, and Side Effects boasts some top-notch performances from some of today's best actors. Tatum is solid, as always, though he isn't given all that much to do, but Mara perfectly wears the mask of a clinically depressed woman. Her gray eyes drift in the air, never really focusing on anything - probably a nice connection with the character's emotional and mental state to Soderbergh's choices in direction. At times Mara is given much more to do than to simply look depressed, and those moments are both pivotal and made all the more engaging in that she's finally allowed to project. She holds her own against powerhouses like Law and Catherine Zeta-Jones, who plays Emily's former doctor Law's character visits for advice. But even though both of these experienced actors are at the top of their game, it's Mara who really holds the pace of every scene she's in.
That's not when Soderbergh and Burns have our attention firmly in their grasp, though. Side Effects begins as a film about the paranoia of the audience and quickly moves to the paranoia and even obsession of its characters. Though never as terrifying as Contagion — it never really tries to be, though that question of what doctors are feeding their patients can't help but be brought up — Side Effects succeeds in delivering a first-rate, adult thriller, essentially a mystery disguised as a pharmaceutical warning, though that is precisely what the marketing for this film would have you believe it's about. Once again Soderbergh and Burns have crafted a stellar narrative told with exquisite execution, but that's to be expected from Soderbergh, too. If the man's plans for retirement come to fruition, a very strong voice in the filmmaking world will be hanging up his director's chair. At least he's going out with a winner.
Jeremy's Rating: 8.5 out of 10