Jude Law, Rooney Mara, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Channing Tatum, Vinessa Shaw, Ann Dowd, Polly Draper, David Costabile and Mamie Gummer
It is difficult to talk about an unpredictable thriller such as this without ruining the experience and fun for your readers. Steven Soderbergh's final theatrical release (he now strictly works for Television) is a psychological thriller like very few these days. Mostly filmmakers tries to recreate the magic that existed in a particular era, back when filmmakers like Hitchcock were so great at what they were doing. Such attempts mostly come across as fake and trying too hard with disappointing results. Soderbergh is different, his entire filmography comprises of some really unorthodox films and attempts. Even for an indie filmmaker, he has made some puzzling choices. I haven't seen most of them so its better to not talk. At the same time, Soderbergh has always shown interest in making genre or commercial films without resolving to the typical troupes. He instead puts a different spin on them, not entirely moving away from the route but breathing a new life into the tired genres. Side Effects alongside "Haywire" and "Contagion" are best examples of that. In Side Effects, you have manipulative plotting in which what you see isn't entirely the truth. The characters are ambiguous and their actions cannot really be put into a clearer context, until you do. And by then, you have been played with in the best sense. The shock and awes, the deliciously fulfilling premise of a thriller and one hell of a time. Soderbergh during the entire time is not trying to make a statement, he doesn't want to be a modern Hitchcock. At the end of the day, he proves that a filmmaker if willing to do so can make such promising genre films without resolving to cheap tactics. Soderbergh is not obsessed with anything but the process of filmmaking, of various types of films and several ways to do that. Like an eager film enthusiast or film student experimenting but with a more assured sensibility and level-headedness.
The screenplay for this film is written by Scott Z. Burns. I will admit that the basic plot of this film is absurd. In a sense that it could have easily been made into an awfully generic straight-to-video film in the 80's. Soderbergh turns the material into a really well-constructed domestic thriller, psychological pastiche and an awfully fun film. The opening scene of this film is intense, something horrible happens and what follows are the events that may or may not have actually led to that. At the center of it all is Emily Taylor (Mara), whose husband, Martin Taylor (Tatum) is released from prison after four years for insider trading. While one watches the initial moments, it is easier for us to make a call regarding the conditions this couple might have been in. The toll that it must have taken on both, especially Emily to go downhill in her life as well as relationship with her husband. A relationship that seems fine from a distant, like a normal couple, very handsome and loving. The one catch is that the husband was in the prison. Maybe he wasn't so great in his life as his professional background indicates? Shortly after Martin is released, one normal day, Emily drives her car straight up into a wall in the underground parking. It is of course a suicide attempt, at least that is what we see and are made to believe. Her psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Banks (Law), agrees to release her from the hospital as long as she regularly attends the sessions with him. This is just the beginning of the downward spiral Emily gets sucked up in. She never seems herself, psychologically disturbed and mentally off-balanced. Clinical depression seems to have taken over every inch of her existence. Nothing can cure it, not any sort of medication, socializing or affection from her husband. Emily once again tries to commit suicide and thus she is put on an experimental drug called Ablixia by her psychiatrist who was reluctant to do so at first. The drug is recommended by Emily's previous psychiatrist, Dr. Victoria Siebert (Zeta-Jones), who is contacted by Banks to attain deeper understanding of his patient's history. Every drug has some side effects, just like every decision we make has an outcome. Side effects are always negative. This new drug seems to induce sleepwalking episodes in the patients who uses them. One normal evening, Emily stabs Martin to death. She must be sleepwalking, she must be!
Side Effects has a sense of disbelief that one feels at every turn. It is felt as I mentioned, not created or directly implied. You have a feeling that something is definitely wrong with these people and the events but you can't put a finger on it. It is that unease which proves worthwhile, meaning you anticipate something horrible and what you get is both that and something you never initially expect. At first, Side Effects is your troubling cautionary tale of drugs and the workings of pharmaceutical companies. How they work and the way they manipulate their new products into practise. It is just a depiction and not a commentary in the film. Furthermore, there is the essential element of depression and how it evolves. Clinical depression ruins lives of everybody. People who develop it can be the most happiest and successful in their lives yet this condition latches on to them like a cancer. It eats them up slowly until they are nothing but a hollow shell with seemingly no identity, life and something to live for. They feel isolated and abandoned. Soderbergh keeps the focus strictly on the characters and their entangled existence. There is no murky and gray area to be viewed or noticed at first, this keeps us guessing throughout. He effectively uses the camera to highlight the 'space' of his characters. The space around them and the space within. Close-ups and claustrophobic shots to create unease. The framing is very interesting as well. Good cinematography as usual for a Soderbergh film, the color palette and lighting. As the plot advances, we are slowly pushed further into the coiled nature of the characters and their presence. What started as a haunting drama on depression and depressed people, it ends as a puzzling tale of cunning characters and their elaborate manipulative end-game. That way, Side Effects ends up being almost two difference films. But all praise directed to the filmmaker for bringing these two sides of the picture together. Beautifully piecing them together without spoiling either half. A puzzle that works both ways. The film doesn't feel uneven and the transition is smooth and not bumpy.
Side Effects is aided by the central strong performance by Rooney Mara. An actress at her very best here. Her performance shows how much she understood the character and role in this film. The command she has throughout to hold our attention, play her part as her character 'plays' and then flipping it all at the end is striking and assured. Mara better than ever in a part that seems tailor-made for her abilities. If the film isn't at its A-game throughout, she is. There is Jude Law who gives his best performance since... Contagion, duh! He is very good here of course because of his meaty part. Law doesn't just play a doctor but a family man and a victim. Somebody who gets caught in the game. In the classic Hitchcock fashion, the wrongfully suspected character. And in the ever so modern way, the focus of bad tabloids which destroys his life. You also have Catherine Zeta-Jones who well, I am not a huge fan of. But a good cast overall. Side Effects isn't a perfect film entirely. I had very small issue with how the second half played out. When the film starts to get into the details of the ploys and the players, it reaches a point where the action starts to feel on the nose. That is the only part where the absence of clear narration and lack of focus is felt. It could have honestly destroyed the whole thing but it doesn't thankfully. The first half is definitely more stronger. But with the sinister and deliciously thrilling premise of Side Effects, the ship never sinks. You see in front of you characters who have everything planned for how they want their lives to be. How they have manipulated their way to achieve a singular feeling of self-entitlement. Abandonment seems to be the underlying theme of the film, something that pushes the characters to act and react in mostly negative ways to ensure or get back what was always so dear to them. People, relationships, wealth, health... themselves.
Side Effects is a good thriller, a suspenseful ride with ambiguity to kick-start and elaborate web of personal complexities to end its run. While I don't see any misogyny in this film, some have. But that comes with the genre even if it is unintentional. There are always choices people make in their lives, men or women, good or evil, intentionally or otherwise. Side Effects shows how much financial as well as psychological stability goes hand-to-hand. Personal satisfaction as well as a sense of empowerment. We are either victims of our own actions or brought to our knees by people. The way we reach out, we always do, to grab any viable opportunity is strictly personal. It doesn't define a person or the gender. Loosing your comfort, which you can find in almost anything or anyone can be very difficult. Soderbergh's Side Effects is a thinking man's psychological suspense pastiche, an absorbing ride and a time well-spent. Fan of the genre or sinister storytelling, of Soderbergh or Rooney Mara, this film is a must.