Movie Review: Side Effects- A Moody and Clever Thriller About Drug Dependency and Psychiatric Responsibility

DSC_8803.NEFThere has always been an uneasy dependency and ignorant acceptance of pharmaceutical drugs, especially in the mood specific area of depression. Whether you’re hearing the truth from your patient or not as a psychiatrist you make judgment calls that could inevitably arrive on your doorstep for the accountability of another person in your care. This frightening and subjectively allusive topic is at the center of Steven Soderbergh’s claimed “last” film feature Side Effects to begin his prolonged retirement that will last a year before he changes his mind again. Soderbergh is an eclectic director who jumps from comedy to action to thriller to historical drama with surprising ease. What’s unfortunate about his prolific directing career is that he spreads his talent too thin and most of his films suffer from distractions and diverting his attention to multiple projects at a time. His latest film Side Effects does suffer a bit from a slow pace but as a meticulously prepared thriller involving depression, medical malpractice, and pharmaceutical drug experimentation it’s an undeniable intriguing affair. The film is a moody and calculated thriller that seems like a throwback to early David Fincher works such as Se7en or The Game with a little Primal Fear thrown in for good measure. While Side Effects isn’t nearly on the level of quality that we can expect from Soderbergh with the likes of Contagion, The Limey, and Schizopolis it’s still a well-constructed, entertaining, and tensely gripping film. One cannot make the perfect the enemy of the good so while there are minor problems with the film in relation to pace and slight predictability it’s how the numerous twists are handled and how they change the actions of the characters that makes Side Effects so intriguing and slightly different. This isn’t the sort of cinematic firework display we’d expect as a finale to Steven Soderbergh’s film feature career so it could be seen as a disappointment for those few die-hard fans, but rest assured the allure of the cinema won’t take long to entice Soderbergh back behind the camera in more ways than one. For what it is and what it’s supposed to be Side Effects is a genuinely thrilling cerebral thriller with character and twists to spare.

Screenwriter Scott Z. Burns has actually penned two other Steven Soderbergh directed projects including the mildly humorous The Informant and the extremely raw virus picture Contagion. Here Burns brings his ability to catch your interest quickly with a vague opening and is able to set up characters, relationships, and backstory in a relatively quick manner. Because the story centers around Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) and the return of her depression after her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) returns from prison there is a lot to introduce relating to their relationship and the family but it’s tactfully handled and revealed at an intelligent pace. After what is perceived to be a suicidal incident Emily is put in the care of Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) and once he prescribes her a new anxiety drug there are some odd side effects that lead to unexpected consequences. The rest of the script follows the media frenzy focusing on a question of medical malpractice by Jonathan whose life begins to fall apart in shambles leaving him the only one willing to find the truth about what has occurred. Each step leading up the numerous twists and character reveals is a great study in patience and treating your audience with respect because nothing is overstated. While the film does have a leisurely pace it isn’t too much of a distraction from the intriguing shifts in the characters, especially in Jonathan Banks who sees he’s losing control from his grip and desperately tries to gain it back. So even if some of the plot reveals are predictable to many thriller connoisseurs it’s how those twists shift the story in unexpected ways. Safe it to say Side Effects was smartly and cleverly written and had the pseudo-intellectual talent of Soderbergh behind the camera guiding it every step of the way.

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There is no denying Soderbergh’s multi-talented film career despite the fact that more than half of his films lack a certain degree of exceptionalism. Perhaps the idea of taking full control of your own films seems like a good idea but sometimes that means spreading the workload which can affect the quality (a side effect if you will…shoot me now). Soderbergh shoots most of his own films and this time was no different as he took the pseudonym Peter Andrews shooting it on digital video. The choice of digital was an appropriate one because it really brought a glossy look almost as if we were experiencing the haziness of the drugs affecting Emily. This ambiance is incredibly important to the tone of the film and Soderbergh utilizes visuals in a way that accentuates the genuine feel of his movies, whether it’s the dualistic quality of Traffic or the light comedic feel of The Informant. Another technical element that was chosen well is the score by Thomas Newman that makes the eeriness of the situations all the more unnerving and questionable. But it’s the tense build up that is felt throughout the entire movie that should be credited to Steven Soderbergh as he handled each and every moment of Scott Z. Burns’ script with tact, patience, and articulate meditation. Granted the leisure pace might turn a few away because it isn’t as exciting as a serial killer thriller but character thrillers can be just as intriguing especially when tackling the idea of professional manipulation. Usually Soderbergh films have an overt political message or social commentary that is as subtle as a hammer, but luckily Side Effects, while it deals with many societal criticisms and business oriented motifs, is incredibly subtle and focuses more on the story being told rather than have a message prepared for the end.

Casting Side Effects was exceptionally important because any loose screw in the structure could have disrupted the entire flow and credibility of the feature, which makes it all surprising that Channing Tatum was in it. Who knows why Tatum became a Soderbergh collaborative inspiration in the last two years with Haywire, Magic Mike, and now Side Effects, but luckily he isn’t a distraction nor is he all that noticeably bad. This is probably because he was challenged by the likes of Rooney Mara and Jude Law who both do an extraordinary job carrying the picture. Mara got a lot of notice for her performance in David Fincher’s remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo but what she lacked in subtlety in that role she makes up for it here as she embodies the helplessness of depression in a believable way. There are two parts to her performance and without giving anything away she handles both with menacing grace. But really it’s the always amazing Jude Law who carries the picture as an honest but tempted psychiatrist whose life unexpectedly takes a turn for the worse after choosing to treat Emily. Seeing him become obsessed with the truth and scramble to keep his life and himself together is incredibly gripping and he does it with such ease becoming the best part of this film as he was in Soderbergh’s Contagion. The sympathy you feel for him is genuine and when he finally gets a sense of justice it all becomes rewarding through feeling his performance. All of the actors from Catherine Zeta-Jones to the marvelous Ann Dowd bring either a clever, emotional, or devious affect to Side Effects rounding out a smart script, creative filmmaking, and well guided performances.

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It will be a shame if Steven Soderbergh up and quits the film industry though no one can blame his hard feelings towards the business. While he doesn’t make consistently strong films, such as Haywire or The Good German, there is no denying his talent behind the camera as a director of actors and as a visual artistic cinematographer. Side Effects may not be a perfect thriller since it lacks some intensity, has a bit of a predictable quality to it, and moves rather languidly, it is still a well written, moodily filmed, and well-acted thriller that will intrigue you from beginning to end. Sometimes when you see a bad Soderbergh film you might proclaim that retirement might be a good idea, but sometimes he’ll surprise us with something like Side Effects reminding us that genuine film lovers in this industry are hard to come by. Hopefully this isn’t his last film not only because it isn’t necessarily worthy of a career finale but also because he possesses talent both as a storyteller and a visual artist which is evidenced by so many of his works. Ultimately though Side Effects is a smart thriller that deals with some intriguing shifts of character and has some social commentary relating to pill dependency and psychiatric responsibility that will at least have you thinking momentarily instead of dumbing you down like most films do these days.

Grade: B

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